PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos -- Environmental concerns and economic interests must strike a balance if sustainable tourism in the Caribbean is to become a reality, according to experts who addressed the 10th annual Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development, sponsored by the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
They warned of dire consequences as a result of the continued abuse of the environment, including climate change, a seasonal shift in tourism demand away from the region and loss of natural resources.
And it's not a pretty picture for coral reefs in the Caribbean, home to 10% of the world's coral.
Rick MacPherson, director of the conservation program for the Coral Reef Alliance, an international organization dedicated to saving the reefs, was blunt in his assessment of efforts to date. (For more with MacPherson, see our In the Hot Seat interview.)
"No conservation program or goal can be achieved unless it's economically viable, combines business success and environmental protection and demonstrates social responsibility," he said.
The dive tourism industry in the Caribbean stands to lose between $100 million and $300 million if the dive experience is diminished due to the destruction of coral reefs and marine life, MacPherson said, pointing to global climate change as a key driver of such destruction.
Coral-based ecosystems are sensitive to temperature increases, which have led to massive coral bleaching, affecting up to 95% of the reef systems around some islands, including the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Cuba and the French West Indies.
According to geneticist and author David Suzuki, co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation of Canada, although sustainability is "finally being taken seriously by governments and corporations, the twin crises of ecological degradation and falling oil supplies will have massive repercussions for all countries, especially the Caribbean and its tourism industry."
He said unchecked growth and unrealistic economic expectations were partially to blame for the threats facing the environment today.
The Caribbean region faces a new reality for tourism in an era of climate change, according to Murray Simpson, senior research associate at Oxford University's Centre for the Environment.
Simpson warned that global warming could cause a potential geographic and seasonal shift in tourism demand away from the region.
The coastal environment is not only a major player in driving Caribbean tourism, but it also serves as a source of food, livelihood and natural defenses.
Jeremy Collymore, coordinator of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency, said that "close to 50% of the Caribbean population and a huge percentage of development are within two miles of the coast and are extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change."
To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].