As a minister of tourism for one of the world’s most tourism-dependent countries in the world’s most tourism-dependent region, I am in a safe position to say that the current pandemic has presented the greatest challenge to the sector that I have ever witnessed.
As a consequence of the various containment measures that have been introduced and sustained across countries, all of which have curtailed public assembly as well as domestic and international travel, the tourism sector, for the past eleven to twelve months, has been dealing with a historic crisis that it has been unable to respond to with any degree of confidence and certainty.
Suddenly, all our previous gains as well as strategies, which had, seemingly, worked well up to a year ago, now appear inadequate to respond to the new demands of the post-COVID-19 tourism sector. This has certainly forced us to confront the important task of rethinking and reshaping the future of the sector head-on.
Indeed, it is no doubt now imperative that as we look to recover and prepare for the future, we embrace new strategies, new orientation and a new ethos that will ensure that the tourism sector becomes more resilient, sustainable, inclusive, and competitive.
The current pandemic has undoubtedly highlighted several critical considerations that must inform the future of the tourism sector. Recovery has become almost synonymous with resilience-building. The sector needs to become more adaptable, resilient, and agile.
This pandemic has presented us with a unique opportunity to transition towards a more balanced tourism as it is anticipated that more international tourists will opt for “resilient” destinations in the post-COVID era. Importantly, the sector must find ways to answer the questions of how increasingly scarce natural resources can be prudently managed and how economic growth can be aligned with the social and economic needs of local populations and communities as well as the preservation of the natural environment.
Tourism-development strategies and practices must be increasingly designed with a view to promoting more resource-efficient initiatives that are in keeping with the aim of achieving sustainable consumption and production, which can be defined as the use of services and related products that respond to basic needs and ensure a better quality of life while minimising the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants. Overall, the thrust towards greater adoption of sustainable practices in tourism will require that all stakeholders in the value chain take full account of the sector’s current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.
Destinations that fail to reorient themselves towards greater resilience in the current and post-COVID periods are likely to be left behind. The COVID-19 crisis is indeed a watershed moment to align the effort of sustaining livelihoods dependent on tourism to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and ensuring a more resilient, inclusive, carbon neutral, and resource efficient future.
Admittedly, among other resources, the hospitality industry uses substantial amounts of energy for providing comfort and services to its guests, typically with a low level of energy-efficiency. Energy supply, vital for the tourism industry, is still dominated by oil products, which increases an island’s vulnerability to the environmental impact of fossil-fuel use, as well as to oil price volatility, which makes it difficult for the industry to remain competitive.
Currently, the global tourism industry is responsible for five to eight percent of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including flights, maritime and land transport, hotel construction and operation, and air conditioning and heating. Tourism is both a victim of, and contributor to climate change: Rising sea levels, melting glaciers, floods, avalanches, water scarcity, deforestation, biodiversity loss, desertification, wildfires, drought and diseases all hurt the tourism economy. However, tourism and energy need not be opposed to each other: With renewables, sustainable energy and tourism can actually complement each other.
Understanding the volatile and difficult environment within which they operate, tourism enterprises must urgently come to terms with the fact that reducing the number of raw materials, energy, production, operating and disposal costs will increase a company’s bottom line. Indeed, all waste represents a loss in profit and resources.
Embrace Sustainable Energy
This requires that the sector embraces sustainable energy that is collected from renewable sources, meaning those which are naturally replenished, such as solar from sunlight, wind, water from rain, tides, waves, and geothermal heat: natural resources to which many tourism establishments have access. Examples of renewable energy elements include solar panels, solar water heaters, wind turbines, bio-digesters, fully solar powered refrigerators/freezers, solar lights, and hydro systems. Other notable innovations in the area of renewable energy include: solar air conditioning (SAC), seawater air conditioning (SWAC) and solar photovoltaic (PV) systems.
Among the benefits of the shift to renewable energy are cost savings, better competitiveness due to reduced cost, reduction of carbon footprint, an environmentally friendly image for businesses allowing for new markets, an improvement on the quality of services offered to guests, and preparation for future problems, such as power outages and water shortages. Renewable energy is a cheaper and cleaner alternative in remote areas.
Beyond the use of renewable energy sources, the adoption of energy conservation and eco-friendly practices will be required at every stage of the building and management process. This includes selecting an appropriate building site, using sustainable building materials, implementing green energy sources and applying a natural design style.
In terms of operational efficiency and energy-cost reductions, more tourism businesses must embrace energy saving technologies such as sensors, LED, smart climate control, embrace recycling, water harvesting, reduce plastic use and increase reusable goods such as reusable napkins, glasses, straws, water bottles, cups, linen etc.
While historically, tourism has shown a strong ability to adapt, innovate and recover from adversity, this unprecedented situation requires new approaches and a strong multi-level response and partnership to achieve some of the loftier goals I have identified above. Policymakers, industry leaders, investors, financial institutions and providers of innovative solutions will be required to collaborate more closely to boost/ensure the required investments to build the infrastructure that will facilitate sustainable tourism and sustainable energy consumption in the tourism sector.
Transitioning to sustainable tourism, will also depend on whether the development of tourism is guided by a national strategy comprising policy, regulatory and institutional frameworks with sufficient incentives to stimulate the development of supply and productive capacity where sustainable goods and services are concerned. This approach to sustainable tourism must also be considered from a regional standpoint as well and should also incorporate strategies to address gaps in the supply side of the equation in Caribbean tourism. Therefore Caribbean destinations need to take strategic steps to ensure that we retain more of the US dollars that flow into the region as a result of tourism.
I would also like to recommend that other Caribbean destinations develop tourism linkages networks, as we have done in Jamaica to enhance the synergies between tourism and other sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture and entertainment. Our Tourism Linkages Network has yielded great success and serves as a prime example of what can be achieved if a robust framework is put in place to strengthen linkages between tourism and other key sectors. The end result will be the development of a more inclusive tourism sector across the region; greater economic growth and job creation; as well as the retention of more of our tourism earnings.
I also want to take this opportunity to again recommend that as a region we explore and implement strong multi-destination marketing frameworks that will help to drive the supply side of the equation and create even greater opportunities for companies within the region to meet the significant demands of tourism on a regional scale.
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