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Growing the Jamaican economy: sustainable tourism

ID: INTERACTIVE DIALOGUE

DAVID MULLINGS

Sunday, December 05, 2010    

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WHENEVER the Jamaican economy is discussed, it is always pointed out that tourism is one of the top three foreign exchange earners for the country and a major employer. The current administration makes sure to promote the fact that Jamaica is among a limited number of countries that have actually seen growth in tourist arrivals during the recession, while the JHTA points out that overall tourism revenues are down because of the recession and the discounts that have had to be given to get people to travel.

With the impending increase of taxes on UK airfares to Jamaica that will see those choosing to visit Jamaica paying higher taxes than to Hawaii, and the expected opening up of Cuba, there is no guarantee that our tourism industry will keep growing or even maintain the current rates charged, so it is high time that Jamaica's tourism industry develops something that differentiates it.

It is also important to note that growing our tourism in the unsustainable manner we have to date -- destroying natural parts of the island, mangroves that buffer coasts against erosion and storms -- cannot continue because the beaches will be totally eroded and the environmental impact on the country will be negative.

Sun, sand and sea can be had anywhere, but that is what we have been marketing all this time. The Bahamas have their casinos (and proximity to the USA), Cuba will be relatively unspoiled, and those countries with no differentiation to draw people will suffer, because they can be easily substituted.

A study by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, that forms part of the World Economic Forum's Travel & Tourism Competitive Report 2008, indicated that environmental factors may determine whether the travel and tourism sectors thrive or falter in coming years.

"Green" tourism, better described as sustainable tourism, presents an opportunity for Jamaica in this hemisphere, and it is important that our tourism policy be informed by what the kingdom of Bhutan has been able to accomplish because we can and should replicate aspects of their policy.

In the Strategy+Business article titled Destination: Green Tourism in August of this year, it is noted that "a 2005 survey by the United Kingdom's Devon County Council found that 54 per cent of respondents consider environmental issues when booking a trip and 82 per cent are willing to pay more for green services and products", clearly pointing out one way for Jamaica to get UK residents to willingly pay the higher fares resulting from the taxes.

Bhutan turned to tourism in 1974 as a way to raise capital and it now accounts for a significant part of the economy. However, unlike most countries, including Jamaica, Bhutan's tourism policy "was carefully and strategically crafted to preserve local culture and prevent environmental degradation" and they pursued a "high-value, low-impact tourism" that would "ensure that its natural and cultural resources will be protected -- and attractive to tourists -- for years to come."

Major tour operators like Thomas Cook are "giving marketing and booking preference to environmentally sustainable destinations and demanding higher green standards from hotels and resorts", and this not only will force Jamaica to adapt, but also creates opportunities.

The article describes four key areas that must be looked at: carbon emissions reduction, conserving biodiversity, waste management, and water supply protection. Each of these areas creates jobs -- in some cases, new kinds of jobs -- opens up opportunities for entrepreneurs to launch new ventures to provide services, and if we do it well, we can provide services to other countries.

Here are some examples relating to each category that can be replicated in Jamaica with the right attitude and proper funding:

AquaCity in Slovakia, now the World's Leading Green Resort, according to the World Travel Awards (the same awards group that has named Sandals Resorts International the World's Leading All-Inclusive Company 17 years in a row) "prevents an estimated 27 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere every day by using geothermal water and solar energy".

Jamaica might not be able to tap geothermal energy, but there is clearly an opportunity to sell and install solar systems, service the systems and provide financing for the systems.

The Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver now has a "heat-recovery system" where steam is condensed back into water and has saved it an estimated "305,380 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year" which can only be a plus based on the high cost of electricity in Jamaica. Is anyone looking into designing, producing, selling, installing or maintaining such systems in Jamaica?

President of the USA, Barack Obama, has spoken many times about "weatherisation" of buildings -- adding insulation to reduce energy use. He pointed out that they need people and companies to undertake this work and I can see how this would help to create jobs for some unemployed people right now while reducing energy consumption, which in turn reduces the amount of oil we import and therefore the oil bill of the country which has to be paid in US dollars.

Then, of course, we have transportation, and that is where policy reform will have to come in. Electric and hybrid vehicles could easily be used to shuttle tourists to and from their hotels to most of the destinations they currently visit. Where are these vehicles?

Biodiversity is affected by human encroachment and especially by waste. Untreated sewage from hotels can do tremendous damage to nature, therefore dealing with waste is critical.

Some lodges in Kenya are now using biodegradable detergents and green waste is composted and used in vegetable gardens. Reclaiming much of the water used daily by the tourism industry is an opportunity to reduce environmental impact and make money.

Developing and selling these detergents, providing waste management services, helping to develop utensils that are easier to recycle and even collecting waste to be recycled such as plastic cups and bottles from hotels are all opportunities that create jobs.

Waste-to-energy is clearly a major opportunity in Jamaica and I am glad that the Government is working on such a project.

The UK has a sustainable tourism certification programme called the Green Tourism Business Scheme with awards from bronze to gold based on meeting specific criteria. Jamaica needs to have something similar in order to allow our tourism industry to differentiate itself and give the hotels and attractions the criteria to work towards.

Jamaica does have a unique culture, but every country claims that, and many do a far better job of marketing their "unique culture" to attract visitors. While working towards making sure our unique cultural assets such as the Bob Marley Museum, mineral baths and others are globally promoted to become "must-see", Jamaica must become a leader of sustainable tourism in the western hemisphere in order to really differentiate our offerings and tap into the growing number of tourists who are looking for environmentally conscious vacations.

By embracing sustainable tourism, we differentiate ourselves, tap into a growing market, reduce our energy consumption, save foreign exchange, protect the environment, create business opportunities for entrepreneurs and create new jobs.

Sustainable tourism can help to grow the Jamaican economy. Of course, a safer Jamaica where tourists don't have to ever worry about travel advisories would help it to grow the economy even more.

-- David Mullings is the Future Leaders Representative for the USA on the Jamaican Diaspora Advisory Board. He is co-founder of Random Media and Kaizen Interactive and has an MBA with concentrations on International Business and Marketing. He is on Twitter at twitter.com/davidmullings and Facebook at facebook.com/InteractiveDialogue

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