Tourism seeks a central development role

One of the most common complaints about tourism is that it does not spread the wealth it creates into rural and urban communities. This is particularly so in larger Caribbean nations like Jamaica, where many thousands are engaged in agriculture; opportunity and education are limited; and when urban drift has resulted in poverty and criminality.

The criticism is that despite the industry accounting for 14.6 per cent of the Caribbean’s GDP in 2014; tourism directly and indirectly employing around 15 per cent of the region’s workforce; and the industry probably contributing much more in other ways that are not statistically captured; its impact on development is not universal.

The reasons are largely related to the manner in which the industry developed.

Based on sun, sea, and sand, and a narrow perspective on the part of most early hotel and resort developers, the Caribbean created a product that for the most part, is largely contained and unchallenging. That is to say, it does little to offer what increasing numbers of younger visitors now require: authenticity and experience.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Caribbean’s beach facing model for which there will always be a market, it has had the effect of limiting the potentially much wider developmental benefits that the industry could create.

Put more directly, not enough has been done in the past to involve those in non-coastal locations and other sectors, particularly agriculture, by creating opportunities for those who live in cities and on the land.

However, there are indications that this is now changing – particularly in Jamaica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic – in ways that are likely to significantly broaden the region’s tourism offering and spread the industry’s benefits more widely.

Speaking about this recently, Jamaica’s Tourism Minister, Edmund Bartlett, said that by working with the private sector, he hopes to diversify the country’s tourism offering.

“We are trying to bring the wealth of tourism into the communities that are in rural areas like the Blue Mountains and our cities, starting with Kingston. The concept is a low density, low impact, soft tourism which drives a different type of demographic. It will bring a mixture of nature and creativity with additional efforts on our part to include some hard infrastructure to enable access”, he said.

His aim, is to encourage higher-spending, more adventurous millennials and baby boomers, who lead new trends in tourism, to visit and experience what Kingston and its surrounding parishes have, by offering authentically Jamaican music, parties, carnival, rural and urban experiences, cuisine, culture, heritage and history.

Separately, Nicola Madden-Greig, in her capacity as Chair of Jamaica’s gastronomy tourism network, cites as an example, the country’s new Jamaican Blue Mountain Culinary Trail. The objective, she says, is for visitors to have culinary experiences; hike mountain trails; stay in bed and breakfasts; and see and experience the country in in a loosely organised way, while preserving the area’s integrity and uniqueness.

“In no way are we seeking to push millions of tourists into this area. Currently the trail receives most its business from the so-called weekend warriors; typically, locals with visiting family and friends. But the objective now is to increase visits during the week from international travellers, giving business owners a steadier revenue stream”, she says.

Government and private sectors initiatives have a broader significance.

In Montego Bay this November Jamaica will host the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s (UNWTO) ‘Global Conference on Partnerships for Jobs and Inclusive Growth through Sustainable Tourism’. Then, governments from around the world will consider how tourism models now being developed by Jamaica and others might have global relevance.

If Jamaica and the region as a whole can demonstrate that tourism can be used to create benefits for all, the opportunity could emerge for the Caribbean– one of the world’s most tourism-dependent regions– to push for the sustainable development of tourism to be included in future UN goals.