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Last updated: 16 November, 2007 - Published 17:46 GMT
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Caribbean tourism under threat

Caribbean beach
The Caribbean is popular for its white sand beaches
What better place to escape the cold harsh winter than on a tropical island, with warm sunshine and where white sand beaches are in no short supply?

Not to mention fresh foods, a vibrant culture and locals who invite you to come again.

For decades the Caribbean has offered just that.

As a result it enjoyed the reputation of being one of the world's most popular vacation spots.

But today Caribbean tourism is under threat.

First, there are new emerging destinations that offer the same tropical experience.

They are also much closer to the European and American markets which the region is heavily dependent on.

This means that the islands can no longer depend on the traditional sun, sea and sand package to attract visitors, and they are now looking to diversify their individual products.

Alternative packages

Barbados, which draws most of its tourists from the United Kingdom, is now improving its standards to ensure visitors have a world class vacation.

"In the future a quality holiday will be known globally as Barbados," President of the Barbados Tourism Association Stuart Layne told BBC Caribbean.

"We're seeking to differentiate ourselves, and right now we are in the process of implementing world class standards."

Bridgetown is also seeking Blue Flag certification, an exclusive eco-label awarded to beaches meeting certain environmental criteria.

Jamaica is taking a different route. Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett says they are now exploring the benefits of health tourism.

"We have 900 species of plants which offer a great opportunity for developing pharmaceutical products.

"We want to explore our spa offerings; we have two mineral spas but we want to do more with them and we're going to be using our local herbs as the basis for treatment in these spas," Mr Bartlett said.

Sir Viv Richards
Sir Viv Richards is helping promote sports tourism in Antigua

Antigua is using its international sports personalities, such as cricket greats Vivian Richards, Curtley Ambrose and Richie Richardson to promote sports tourism.

Montserrat, meanwhile, is depending on its Soufriere Hills Volcano, to market adventure tourism.

The Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation, Vincent Vanderpool Wallace, believes another option is to target visitors closer to home.

"There's a huge market that we've never really focused on, it's that enormous diaspora around the world. That is the only market that is ours," he said.

Mr Vanderpool Wallace would also like the region to pay more attention to nearby Latin American countries.

Climate change

Diversifying their markets is not the only big challenge facing the managers and policy makers of the Caribbean's vital tourism industry.

There's another real and present threat: climate change.

"In the Caribbean we stand to hurt most because we are small islands and changes in the environment hurt island ecology in a very dramatic way," lamented Ricky Skerrit, St Kitts and Nevis' Minister of State for Tourism.

With the global phenomenon threatening to undermine the very environment on which tourism depends, there are plans to adapt tourism to climate change.

One proposal is to reduce long-haul travel, to cut the level of carbon emissions from airlines.

This would mean fewer visitors to the Caribbean.

However Mr Skerrit told BBC Caribbean that the islands should not have to pay for the mistakes of larger countries.

"It seems to me that the airlines are becoming scapegoats when their contribution to the problem is miniscule compared to industrialised activity," he said.

"And of course, the island destinations in the Caribbean that have such a strong dependency on international travel, we stand to hurt a great deal by any punitive action placed on long haul travel."

Eco-tourism alternative

So what then should be done? There are those who feel that there is a role for tourism in protecting the environment - eco tourism.

One of its strongest advocates is Dominica.

Tourism Minister Ian Douglas says the island is well poised to take advantage of the latest developments.

"Dominica is not one of the destinations that cater for mass tourism, it's small, it's unique and green and the only way to preserve this environment is to allow like minded persons to spend their tourism dollars here," he said.

Guyana is also now embarking on a tourism path after concentrating its economy for many years on agriculture and mining.

It too, has chosen eco-tourism.

Grenada beach
Caribbean coastlines are under threat from climate change

One of its pioneers there, Zena Bone, believes this is the future of tourism in the region.

And she strongly suggests that the Caribbean should follow Singapore's example of protecting the environment while promoting the industry.

"They do a lot of sidewalk cooking, but whatever they use is edible. All the leaves they use for wrapping the food are edible, and that is what I'm going to try to do," she said.

Contain growth

Belize is considered the foremost eco-tourism destination in the Caribbean.

Kenrick Theus, who runs a tourism business there, says while Caribbean countries are looking to protect the industry, they also need to contain the level of growth, to preserve the environment.

"In some countries tourism has been left to grow basically at its own will.

"We're trying to train our tour guides to make sure they understand we have to do things in a sustainable manner so that we don't damage what we have," Mr Theus said.

But while the Caribbean is coming to terms with new challenges, it's not all doom and gloom.

The CTO's Secretary General Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace says the region still has a strong product, and is optimistic that visitor arrivals will remain high in the coming year.

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