World Tourism Day being observed today under the theme “Tourism and Rural Development” comes at a sobering time for the Caribbean. Travel is unlikely to return to normality for another year, or even well into 2022. We need to make this a transformational moment to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic stronger. We must move away from being merely tourist-dependent. We need to harness the industry to make our islands safer, greener and more resilient.

Tourism has had a big but narrow economic impact. Big in that it is our main economic sustenance. Pre-pandemic it accounted for between 34 per cent and 48 per cent of GDP in The Bahamas, Barbados, and Jamaica. Aruba, Antigua and Barbuda, and The Bahamas are the three most tourist-dependent economies in the world. Fourteen of the 15 most tourism-dependent nations in the Americas are in the Caribbean.

But the impact is also narrow. Many tourists came in cruise ships and stayed for short periods. Or they stayed in properties on our beaches to enjoy the warm waters and golden sands. There is nothing wrong with this. Nature has blessed us with coastline beauty we can share with our visitors.

As we focus on rural development we can do much more, however, to make the experience for tourists richer, to the benefit of more Caribbean citizens.

Of course, in the short term, we must continue to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, by supporting individuals who have lost their incomes and protecting our productive assets so we can bounce back quickly. We need to have our hotels, restaurants, tour operators and attractions fully ready when visitors return.

The staff who have been furloughed will need training to engage our visitors in a different way. Jamaica has been working to train workers in new skills as well as COVID-19 health protocols. So far no tourism entity has been connected with any COVID-19 cases.

We also need to be smart in how we reopen. Many small island states flattened and even crushed the infection curve through social distancing measures and travel restrictions, at a big cost to our citizens, so countries are looking to reopen. This carries risks. Cases spiked in The Bahamas in July, and more recently Jamaica, when restrictions were relaxed. We need to base our reopening decisions on the prevalence of the virus in each source country and better manage risks by insisting on either pre-testing before arrival or on-site testing upon arrival. Barbados has been particularly strong in implementing these risk management techniques.

The Caribbean has also recently instituted a travel bubble comprising St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, and Barbados which makes it easier for eligible travellers to traverse these countries.

At the same time, we can begin working on a new kind of tourism, more attuned to the future and to the needs of our island economies.

Indeed, environmental sustainability has to underpin any actions as we reinvent the sector. This is the lesson of Hurricane Dorian and so many others. The Galapagos Islands are looking to enhance the local sustainability of tourism by balancing ocean resources and human needs. This includes lengthening the stays of tourists to reduce the number of arrivals, producing more food locally and in sustainable ways, housing visitors in hotels that use renewable energy sources, and using boats that are powered by non-carbon fuels, among other measures.

Another key to the future of tourism is making it a much richer experience than beach trips. According to a consumer research by Euromonitor in 2019, four out of five American visitors would be interested in culture-based tourism. Visitors want to learn and interact more with local communities. They are eager to try local foods and enjoy adventures that become stories they can tell friends upon their return. Getting more visitors in communities generates new revenue sources for local businesses, enhances culture, community identity and pride. The Compete Caribbean Partnership Facility has worked with the Caribbean Tourism Organization to develop a tool kit for community-based tourism that appeals to the digitally-savvy adventure seeker by providing easier access to authentic experiences.

In Jamaica, eco and community tourism have been attractive to tourists, especially Europeans and Asians. There are also good prospects for sports tourism.

The Caribbean has natural resources for nature-based as well as culture-based solutions — scuba diving in the reefs, shark diving in The Bahamas, exploring the rich biodiversity of the forests in Trinidad and Tobago, and the mountains and mangroves of Jamaica. Music fests such as Trinidad Carnival and Jamaica’s Reggae Sumfest are attractive cultural events.

Several initiatives are looking to help make these riches more locally relevant. IDB Lab, in collaboration with the United Nations World Tourism Organization, has launched a challenge to support innovative technologies to bring new life to the tourism sector in 15 countries in Central America and the Caribbean. We have convened a movement to gather “moonshot” ideas that will transform the Caribbean, including for tourism.

I am confident these will be the seeds that add to an ecosystem of innovation and creativity that has marked our cultures. We have so much to offer to visitors and to the world. Let’s turn this pandemic into an opportunity.

— Therese Turner-Jones is IDB country representative for Jamaica and general manager Caribbean Country Group

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