Ecotourism development in East Grand Bahama
Interestingly, it has been almost three years since I wrote my first OpEd for this column, entitled, “Reaping from Ecotourism in The Bahamas” (see August 3, 2018 article). The article referred to the potential for The Bahamas to reap benefits from this responsible form of tourism if it is planned and managed well.
Since September 2020, University of The Bahamas has been serving in a consulting capacity for the Implementing Land, Water and Ecosystem Management in The Bahamas (IWEco The Bahamas) project for East Grand Bahama managed through the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection (DEPP). East Grand Bahama still struggles to rebound in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.
About the project
Approximately 49,000 acres of land and ecosystems in East Grand Bahama comprise the focus area for the IWEco The Bahamas project. The project is part of a larger, regional undertaking for the Caribbean funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) entitled “Integrating Water, Land and Ecosystems Management in Caribbean Small Island Developing States” (IWEco). Multi-sectoral stakeholders are working collaboratively to creatively restore and manage land and watershed resources, as well as create ecotourism livelihoods in East Grand Bahama. Nationally, key partners are the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection (DEPP), Department of Forestry, The Ministry of Public Works, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust and the University of The Bahamas.
One of the key components of the project for which I have responsibility as the Tourism Specialist, relates to sustainable livelihood which includes developing an ecotourism plan of action and leading training programmes to build the capacity of residents of East Grand Bahama to manage the existing and the newly developed ecotourism production sector. One of the strategies involves developing and implementing a tourism model and standards designed to promote and foster sustainable ecotourism which will include tourism management strategies (for instance access to sensitive habitats); design and construction of related facilities and infrastructure (like using green/alternative technologies that are cost-effective and boost ecotourism); and management of waste streams. Others will include identification of options for sustainable tourism activities, and sustainable extractive and non-extractive uses of available natural resources; and identifying small business models that are suitable for ecotourism in East Grand Bahama.
Understanding what ecotourism is not
Ecotourism is always confused with the term “nature-based tourism”. They appear to be the same but, are not. So, to understand what ecotourism is not, you need to first know what is nature-based tourism. There are many complex definitions. But simply put, nature-based tourism is all forms of tourism (mass, adventure, low impact, and ecotourism) which use natural resources in a wild or undeveloped form. The main purpose for visitors engaging in nature-based tourism is to travel to enjoy natural areas or wildlife.
What is ecotourism? It is responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local people. In short, ecotourism focuses on minimizing impact; building and respecting environmental and cultural awareness; providing positive experiences for both the visitors and hosts; providing direct benefits for conservation, and providing financial benefits and empowerment for the local community. So, ecotourism is a subset of nature-based tourism and not vice versa. This lack of understanding has resulted in many destinations claiming to be an ecotourism destination when, in reality, they are not. They are just offering nature-based tourism and hence, “greenwashing” (or marketing by masking the truth about doing good to the environment when in actual fact, it is not), tends to overshadow their operations (see October 26, 2018 article).
One of the key objectives of the IWEco The Bahamas project is to build sustainable livelihoods in the ecotourism production sector developed for the community (and residents) of East Grand Bahama using benchmarked standards. Hence, it is critical to ramp up training programmes that can build the capacity of the community to pursue employment opportunities in the ecotourism production sector. By building the capacity of the community to manage their natural environment based on tested international benchmarks, the sustainability of the destination and the well-being of the community is safeguarded. Creating further capacity for citizens to earn a decent living through ecotourism goods and services is equally as important as a means of sustainably growing earning potential.
One of the critical aspects of the project is engagement and input from Grand Bahama residents. Initially, through an online survey, residents’ feedback was analyzed to understand their attitudes and perspectives on ecotourism development in East Grand Bahama. A properly developed ecotourism development sector can bring tremendous benefits for the community and has traditionally been a key means of income generation for women and youth, in particular, in the form of community based tourism. Hence, the survey provides residents’ views on how feasible this project is, their concerns, and gives valuable insights on how the community can derive benefits through job creation and an increase in alternative income.
Respondents to the survey were overwhelmingly enthusiastic in their opinions that East Grand Bahama deserves quality touristic activities that would both be valuable experiences for visitors and preserve and protect the natural environment and tourism sites. They referred to characteristics like small and personal experiences that target specific groupings (including discovery and hiking trails) and generational attractions (including those for grandparents and grandchildren) that can be areas of focus for ecotourism programmes and activities. Further, respondents also expressed the belief that ecotourism is the ideal opportunity to promote “Bahamianness” and Bahamian culture and expressed support for a diversified focus on areas including wellness tourism, agri-tourism, education tourism, and community-based tourism. Attracting domestic tourists was also a key recommendation.
Respondents also went on the record indicating that ecotourism businesses should all be held to the same industry standard of operation. This would ensure that these operations are well managed, that standards are established to support sustainability in the long-term, and health protocols are followed in this COVID-19 era, which may be here longer than we all expected. Another point raised by the public is the need for sustained education and accessible information about the communities of East Grand Bahama. There were references to education about the special and unique features of the area and growing ecotourism and other activities based on these characteristics and unique selling points.
One of the interesting things which also came out is the view that ecotourism could increase employment for the youth of Grand Bahama in particular. This is key to reduce migration of youth to New Providence, and to assist the mainly senior residents in managing their depleted ecotourism products and services. Further, there were expressions about the need to actively champion, promote, advertise and market East Grand Bahama widely and broadly.
The survey also probed the type of help that small businesses need to be successful in ecotourism ventures. Funding, capacity building training, marketing of their products/services, and effective ecotourism/eco-business management were the areas identified. Micro and small ecotourism entrepreneurs highlighted challenges to business continuity including lack of access to capital/funding, insufficient skills in financial management, and the lingering impact of hurricanes. They asserted the need for training and an expansion of skills in business management, ecotourism services, environmental management, customer service and financial management.
The way forward
This project ideally will transform the quality of ecotourism products and the services provided in East Grand Bahama, an area which is still struggling to rebound from the effects of Hurricane Dorian. A national certification standard is being developed; benchmarked against international sustainable tourism standards which will include a series of indicators that will need to be constantly measured and evaluated. If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage and improve. Hence, these indicators will not only continuously improve the quality of the products and services offered, but also ensure the sustainability of the biodiversity at these ecotourism sites. At the end of the project, there should be increased employment with trained personnel able to manage the industry’s sustainability and remain resilient.
• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean, graduate studies and research and professor, sustainable tourism, University of The Bahamas.