The Bahamas first recognized the potential for a tourism industry in the middle of the 19th century, leading to the government passing the Tourism Encouragement Act in 1851. Fast forward 167 years, and tourism has grown to become an activity of significant dimension for the nation. In the process it has also become the subject of a great deal of controversy, in terms of not only its impact on domestic social and cultural life, but also on the ultimate economic benefits being derived. As we can observe in The Bahamas, high tourist arrivals does not translate to high tourism receipt or contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the nation. High tourism receipt can be a reality if the industry evolves from low-yield to high-yield tourism.
Ecotourism products and services represent a significant component of the Bahamian tourism industry. The continued development of ecotourism offers The Bahamas the opportunity to capitalize on increasing international and domestic consumer demand for quality experiences in natural and cultural environments.
The critical questions that we need to ask in ensuring a viable business footing for ecotourism in The Bahamas are: What makes ecotourism in The Bahamas different from mainstream tourism? How many “real” ecotourism operators are there in the country? What is the tourism climate within the Caribbean, in particular, and the Americas, in general, that can impact the ecotourism business in The Bahamas?
What is ecotourism in the real sense?
The market in general has rushed to satisfy its wants, slapping the term “eco” on anything related to the outdoors. Eco is now synonymous with outdoor adventure sports, wildlife viewing, responsible beach/sea activities and visits to preserved wilderness. The term’s dilution has left skeptical travelers wondering who to trust when they want to support real ecotourism.
According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), “ecotourism is now defined as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education”. Education is meant to be inclusive of both staff and guests. Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities and sustainable travel.
What it means is that those who implement, participate in and market ecotourism activities should adopt the following ecotourism principles of TIES, which are well accepted in successful ecotourism destinations of the world: minimize physical, social, behavioral and psychological impacts; build environmental and cultural awareness and respect; provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts; provide direct financial benefits for conservation; generate financial benefits for both the local community and the private sector in the industry; deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental and social climates; design, construct and operate low-impact facilities; and recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the local community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.
Mitigating the challenges
One of the main problems with the current practice in ensuring sustainable development of the ecotourism business in The Bahamas is that the large number of small organizations involved in tourism, in general, and ecotourism, in particular, and their related fields make the effort to collect data from them both costly and time consuming. This results in unreliable and incomplete ecotourism databases. Without these data, decision-making can be tedious and inaccurate for the government or the industry. Having a central tourism observatory where all real-time data are constantly collected and analyzed for public consumption is the way forward for the nation.
Hence, the $10 million G.T.R. Campbell Small Island Sustainability Research Complex being constructed at the University of The Bahamas is expected to open in fall 2018. This complex can function as the central clearing-house for all tourism (including ecotourism) data for The Bahamas. The university, being apolitical, will play an unbiased role in reporting the areas that require government and industry interventions.
Ecotourism is a big industry for many nations that are rich in natural resources. The Bahamas in general has managed to preserve a healthy and abundant natural environment which is ideal to grow the ecotourism business. With approximately 25 national parks stretching from Walker’s Cay, in the very northern part of the Abaco islands, to Inagua in the extreme south, and picturesque beaches all across the archipelago, strategizing an ecotourism model that focuses on high-yield responsible tourism is not an impossible task if there is political will to get the work done.
We are all aware of the significance of the three pillars of sustainability, comprising the 3Ps – profit (the economy), people (the social) and the planet (the environment). Nonetheless, we forget the fourth “P”, which is the most critical in any sustainable initiative – politics. Without honest intervention and the determination to make the nation prosper, the industry and the community will forever be at loggerheads with the government of the day.
The sound ecotourism business for benchmarking
Australia leads the world in accreditation of best practice ecotourism management. Best practice management means that your business activities make a contribution to preserving the environment and improving the understanding and appreciation of its many qualities. There are ranges of legal and operational obligations applicable to ecotourism operators. What are the statutory codes that apply to you? What is an environmental audit, and do you need to bring in an environmental consultant? Case studies from Australia can be used to demonstrate how best practice management theory could be translated into a business operation.
The following aspects of management should be included when studying the ecotourism business:
1. Best practice environmental management;
2. Interpretation – guiding, signage and visitor information;
3. Visitor management;
4. Energy management;
5. Waste management;
6. Product maintenance;
7. Visitor safety/risk management; and
8. Business planning.
Further thought can also be put into the sustainable design and the basic concepts in sustainable and responsible tourism: climate analysis, locality analysis, site analysis and case examples by climatic zone. Building new structures or renovating existing structures for an ecotourism venture requires considerable thought and planning. As an archipelago, The Bahamas can be divided into suitable climatic regions, and the issues which affect structural suitability in each region can be analyzed, especially in the regions that are more prone to severe hurricanes.
Marketing and maintaining the quality of the ecotourism products and service are paramount to making a good impression on the client. If they enjoy the experience, they are more likely to return and recommend you to other people. Presenting your enterprise in a professional and credible manner is important for repeat customers.
The great attraction of ecotourism sites for domestic and international visitors is that natural and cultural sites are sensitively managed and presented for their enjoyment and experience. In The Bahamas, the responsibility of managing these resources lies with a range of stakeholders on the respective islands and at the central government, private owners, trustees and other user groups.
Why would people want to visit a special area when they can get a good deal of information about it from books, television, videos and the Internet? Most visitors are looking for an experience. How you interpret the landscape, the wildlife, the culture or the history of a location for your clients can make all the difference to how they experience it. A quality experience for the client can make the difference between being a must-see attraction and being just another tourist business.
The way forward
In conclusion, many ecotourism sites in The Bahamas can reap a return from their natural resources if the operators managing these sites are directly involved with the conservation of natural and cultural resources. Many approaches to successful ecotourism sites management in small island destinations can be benchmarked by The Bahamas. These approaches include strategies like supporting research projects, getting involved in the rehabilitation of degraded areas and helping to control exotic, rare and endemic species. This kind of involvement by ecotourism operators not only has the potential to contribute to the viability and sustainability of their enterprise, but it will impress clients. It becomes a selling point and enhances their credentials as an environmentally responsible business. This will indeed be the way forward for The Bahamas.
• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean of graduate studies and research and professor of sustainable tourism at the University of The Bahamas.