Caribbean Tourism & Climate Change

The time for studying and discussing is long past. Action, now, is the only way forward.

Some widely accepted concepts underpin the urgency for the Caribbean to adapt to climate change:

As Naturefriends has pointed out,

"On a global scale, climate change is a deeply unjust phenomenon. It has been caused by the over-consumption of resources by a small part of the world‘s population, mainly in the industrialised countries, while the consequences of climate change have started to threaten many people’s lives in the Caribbean". (Tourism Development in a Changing Climate, respect – Institute for Integrative Tourism & Development, NatureFriends International, Austria, 2009; link @

So, while tourism operators in the Global North are —by far— the greatest benefactors of the tourism activity in the Caribbean, it is the latter that must deal with the local pressures of fixing the impacts of tourism and climate change. Secondly, they must also do so with ongoing demand for visits to their destinations, the resulting damage to local infrastructure and tourist sites with very little in the way of financial assistance from the large, rich companies that deploy visitors into their communities. Finally, these countries do not have adequate resources to deal with the combined negative impacts of all of these factors, as outlined above, and are forced to be perpetually in catch up mode.

Clearly, this relationship cannot continue if the tourism industries in Caribbean countries are going to survive and remain a sustainable resource for generations to come, or even for the next one or two decades. But, there does not appear to be much incentive for all inclusive resorts, cruiselines, tour companies or airlines to adapt to the realities of the impacts that their business activities are having. The inter-related co-dependencies between Caribbean destinations and tourism suppliers dictate that a sustainable industry is the only way forward. Any 'un'-sustainability will negatively impact all stakeholders. The companies avoid any discussion about their negative impacts and visitors, who are on vacation, are also not burdening themselves with any thoughts about their impacts. For them, life and consumption carry on just like when they are at home. This poses additional stresses on local infrastructure that is challenged to keep up to demand. So, what is being done to combat these pressures and to mitigate their impacts? When will the crisis be widely perceived as a crisis? When will the crisis reach the tipping point when action is no longer unavoidable?

There is no doubt that foot-dragging on solving emissions by industry have gone on for too long. However, this can't be used by Caribbean leaders as a smokescreen for lack of decisive action to mitigate impacts.

Caribbean nations —in partnership with suppliers must, collectively, find ways to reduce visitor numbers while at the same time increasing the proportion of visitor spending that stays in their nations. These stakeholders must develop ways to correct the imbalances in economic benefits that clearly exist. Political and business leaders must step up to act within a unified body to force foreign business entities to act responsibly towards the destinations they depend on for their profitability. Competitiveness, in the modern context, is not about simply delivering short term profit, it must also include longer term viability of the tourism 'plant' and this must include local people as well as local biospheres. Why is this important? Shifting this imbalance towards rewarding Caribbean nations for supplying the tourism product delivers more money for local governments, entrepreneurs and communities to redress the depletion of local resources and to repair the damage that tourism and climate change bring.

Unfortunately, the impacts of climate change are now irreversible and unstoppable. Even if action to reduce the generation of CO2 is successful over the next couple of decades, natural processes, such as melting sea ice at the poles or warming seas, cannot be stopped. This leaves Caribbean destinations with a myriad of problems. First, most people in the region are living close to the sea. Along with this, most tourism infrastructure is also close to the sea. It will not be possible to stop damage from occurring. So, the need for action to mitigate impacts becomes even more urgent. Further, the majority of tour operators are also dependent on attractiveness of coastal areas. So, as damage or depletion of coastal resources deepens, the profitability of their industries will certainly be under pressure.

In particular, the fact of sea level rise (SLR) has been known about for decades. But recent information has demonstrated that SLR is happening faster than earlier predicted. We have already seen numerous examples of coastal areas that have sustained significant damage. This kind of damage is bound to get worse and this will happen sooner than expected. This also has associated impacts where damage to coastal resources from storm surges and wave action will become worse in the very near future. Any structures or infrastructure with coastal exposure, whether existing or to be built, must be constructed to defend against this sort of intrusion.

A related, and probably more severe impact, may be the inundation of seawater into local drinking water supplies or sewage treatment facilities. This clearly impacts local people in addition to compromising any investment in resorts or infrastructure.

Also, warming seas and the atmosphere are intensifying storms, rainfall and wind action. Hurricanes and severe storms have always been present in the Caribbean but their frequency along with damaging impacts are predicted to increase. Caribbean leaders are attempting to juggle the irresistible forces of foreign companies vs their own local agendas, coupled with the intractability of dwindling natural resources. The horizon where local agendas overtake foreign ones is approaching but what this will leave in terms of viable future tourism developments remains to be seen. So, whereas, Caribbean leaders might have thought they had decades more to act, now the realisation is that the time window is closing rapidly.

This has been known about for a long time and a massive amount of literature has been written on the relationship between climate change and tourism. We know what is going to happen, more or less. But limited action, so far, appears to have been undertaken to build any kind of resilience to the impacts. Recriminations and blaming are not going to solve the problems. Coming to terms with impacts and hunkering down to find ways to prevent the worst part of the damage is what is needed. Widescale, radical actions are required. Visionary leadership is required. And it is needed now. The time for talking, studying, and discussing is long past. We need to use what we know about impacts to put in place and/or implement lasting solutions.

Caribbean peoples, in fact ALL peoples, need to demand action on the part of their business and political leaders to mitigate the consequences of climate change and this needs to happen immediately. The leaders themselves will not act on their own without the perceived will of their electorates to make climate mitigation a top priority. Will the collective action of political leaders be something that is forced upon them by some kind of crisis. Or, will they see the writing on the wall and start to act with vision and forethought to at least reduce some of the damage that everyone knows is going to take place. A lot of this sort of action is already happening at a local, community level but this needs to be encouraged and to become more widespread. Supports need to be in place to ensure that actions are consistent with known mitigation principles and to improve their chances of success. Younger people see the need but their political clout is not enough for the time being but will certainly reach a critical mass, hopefully soon.

Training for resilience, such as AFD’s AdaptAction facility is "financing the preparation of an online course in adaptation strategies, which taps into the expertise of several development and environmental organizations". Still, as Professor Michelle Mycoo at UWI states:

"The Caribbean faces barriers to climate change adaptation in urban areas, such as governance constraints, and limited financial and human resource capacity. Common issues include outdated infrastructure development plans, antiquated urban policies, obsolete building standards and building codes. Also, there is a lack of coordination between central government agencies and local government authorities to monitor building operations and drainage infrastructure". (source, AFD)

This also leaves a major gap in that what is being done in the meantime until young people, and their resources, come into day to day practice. As Dr Donovan Campbell states in the same article, as well as in his own 'Expert viewpoint':

"Adaptation is all about taking actions to deal with current or anticipated impacts of climate change. It is a process that involves moving beyond coping, towards long-term measures that can effectively respond to climate risks and impacts".

Perhaps the problem is knowing exactly what to do that: A, will mitigate impacts and, B, will not make any impacts worse. So, some amount of caution in planning and implementation is helpful. But, what has been going on has resulted in a sclerotic, near paralytic debate about the details of which action might be better than another. As an example, we already know that building resorts in environmentally sensitive areas is going to result in increased damage to the local biosphere. It is also known that resorts built in places exposed to severe damage from storms compromises both their operation and attractiveness.

So, local leaders must be educated, first and foremost, that regardless of any economic benefit, this kind of development simply cannot be allowed to go ahead. Impacts on coastal assets, infrastructure, water and energy supplies along with sewage treatment will be significant and probably greater than any environmental certification study could predict. The reasons for this are that increases in consumption as local populations grow and the development of other projects are not accounted for in EIAs. The fact is that environmental and building code guidelines need to be strict and enforced. Even if such a project is allowed to go ahead, its attractiveness and economic benefit has a high probability of being shortlived. Building any tourism projects where potential impacts may exceed any benefits is clearly irresponsible. Recent projects that have been built, such as Buccament Bay or the Magdelena Grand, stand as examples.

Will Caribbean destinations demonstrate leadership on mitigating the impacts of tourism and climate change?

What it ultimately comes down to is that the motivation to put in place effective mitigation practices must be sufficient to overcome resistance and that hasn't happened yet. This is a Human problem, not a Climate problem.

Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre: Empowering People to Act on Climate Change

Through its role as a Centre of Excellence, the CCCCC will support the people of the Caribbean as they address the impact of climate variability and change on all aspects of economic development, through the provision of timely forecasts and analyses of potentially hazardous impacts of both natural and man-induced climatic changes on the environment, and the development of special programmes which create opportunities for sustainable development.

Climate Change and Disaster Reduction, Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI)

Our goal is to improve the resilience of livelihoods and ecosystems to climate change and disasters by building the capacity of stakeholders, particularly those most vulnerable, to participate effectively in ecosystem management and develop appropriate responses to climate change.

Selected readings:

Articles on Climate Change and the Caribbean, CSGM Public Portal, UWI

Can You Imagine A Caribbean Minus Its Beaches: It's not science fiction, it’s climate change, WorldBank, 2013

Story Highlights

"Captain the island’s sinking!" - Climate change and tourism in Speightstown, Barbados, West Indies by Michael Scantlebury, 2009

Abstract: Climate change for Barbados has several direct impacts, rising sea level, dying reef and sea grass communities leading to compromised coastal protection. Climate change results in more frequent and intense storm events. Combined with reduced reef protection, the impact of high magnitude events on coastal communities is devastating. In the Caribbean, the coast is a major tourist attraction and many urban centers are located there. This paper documents the like impact of climate change on the historic township of Speightstown, Barbados.

Caribbean and Climate Change: The cost of inaction, Ramón Bueno, 2008

The two dozen island nations of the Caribbean, and the 40 million people who live there, are in the front lines of vulnerability to climate change. Hotter temperatures, sea-level rise and increased hurricane intensity threaten lives, property and livelihoods throughout the Caribbean. As ocean levels rise, the smallest, low-lying islandsmay disappear under the waves. As temperatures rise and storms become more severe, tourism—the life-blood of many Caribbean economies—will shrink and with it both private incomes and the public tax revenues that support education, social services, and infrastructure. And these devastating impacts will occur regardless of the fact that Caribbean nations have contributed little to the release of the greenhouse gases that drive climate change.

Caribbean Looks To Paris Climate Summit For Its Very Survival by Desmond L Brown, Inter Press Service, IPS News, 2015

Christmas Storm Underlines Caribbeans Vulnerability by Desmond L Brown, Inter Press Service, IPS News, 2014

Climate change bites by Romardo Lyons, Jamaica Observer, 2021
The vibrancy of the Caribbean is slowly melting away. The culprit: climate change.

The impact of climate change on Caribbean tourism demand by Winston Ricardo Moore, in Current Issues in Tourism, Volume 13, Issue 5, 2010

"Using data on the region’s likely climatic future under four scenarios, the tourism demand model was employed to simulate the impact of changes in climatic features on regional arrivals. The results suggest that in the worst-case scenarios arrivals to the Caribbean could fall by about 1% per year due to the effects of climate change, costing the region about US$118 million–US$146 million in lost revenue per annum. These results were, however, not homogenous. Some Caribbean countries were likely to be more affected by climate change than others. For example, under worst case scenarios arrivals to three Caribbean islands (Bermuda, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago) could fall by about 5% per year due to the effects of climate change". (pg 10)