Scientists create guidelines to help conserve Caribbean coral reefs
At a critical time for economies and the ocean, The Nature Conservancy, the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association and the United Nations Environment Programme joined forces to create, for the first time in the Caribbean, a guide to coral reef restoration designed specifically for the tourism sector.
Healthy coral reefs are essential for the Caribbean tourism industry, which drives local economies and supports hundreds of thousands of livelihoods throughout the region. A Guide to Coral Reef Restoration for the Tourism Sector presents coral restoration best practices backed by scientific research, practitioner experience and stakeholder input. It addresses barriers that, up until now, have hindered the Caribbean tourism sector from substantively engaging in efforts to conserve the very marine environments that draw millions of visitors to the region each year. It also reveals key opportunities for the industry during a critical time – when developing sustainable tourism practices not only helps to reverse years of degradation of Caribbean reefs, but also helps tourism-dependent businesses to survive and prosper after the economic fallout of COVID-19.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA), along with the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism (CAST) – which CHTA founded in 1997 to assess the tourism industry’s readiness, needs and willingness to play a more proactive role in managing, protecting and improving coral reefs throughout the Caribbean – teamed up on the groundbreaking collaboration. The guide was developed following months of surveys and discussions with Caribbean tourism industry stakeholders.
“TNC, UNEP, CHTA and CAST developed these new guidelines because we recognized that the tourism sector has an excellent opportunity to amplify coral conservation,” says Ximena Escovar-Fadul, TNC’s Senior Associate, Ocean Planning and Mapping. “In response to the coral reef crisis, there has been a shift on the part of tourism businesses and consumers toward more sustainable travel options. Beyond this ‘do no harm’ mindset, there is an increasing interest in travel activities that can proactively help nature. For example, travelers want to know how they can offset their carbon emissions or take part in restoring the environments that bring them joy when visiting a destination, like coral reefs.”
Coral reefs support economic stability and human well-being across the globe, but the link between these ecosystems and communities is especially significant, and facing grave risk, in the Caribbean today. Half of all livelihoods in the region depend on marine resources. To create the tourism-centered coral restoration guide, it was fundamental to collect input from people whose businesses or income depend on healthy coral reefs. Interviews, surveys and focus groups were conducted with stakeholders across more than 20 Caribbean countries and territories, incorporating multiple tourism sub-sectors to capture a wide array of perspectives – including transportation and accommodations, food and beverage, ocean and beach recreation, and others.
“Coral reefs and the important ecosystem services they provide are critical for economies and communities throughout the wider Caribbean. They generate more than US$8 billion per year for the tourism industry, but they are under serious threat. It is estimated that over half of the live coral in the region has been lost in the last 50 years,” explains Ileana Lopez, Regional Coordinator - Biodiversity and Ecosystems, UNEP’s office for Latin America and the Caribbean. “The restoration of degraded coral reef ecosystems is only possible when political and financial support, scientific innovation and active participation of local stakeholders is combined.”
In recent years, TNC and its partners have pioneered research to reveal the important connection between tourism and our ocean resources – and to elevate the ways in which effective conservation can ensure this relationship is productive and sustainable into the future. A groundbreaking study led by TNC revealed that reef-associated tourism in the Caribbean generates US$8 billion per year – nearly 25% of all tourism expenditure – from over 11 million visitors. TNC’s Mapping Ocean Wealth project, which quantified the tourism value of the world’s reefs to mobilize investments in conservation, was recognized as a “world-changing tourism initiative” by winning the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Tourism for Tomorrow Innovation Award. Building on this momentum, TNC and the CHTA forged a partnership to work with tourism leaders throughout the Caribbean in their efforts to ensure a healthy and thriving ocean.
“Our growing alliance with the tourism sector is key to our mission in the Caribbean,” says Dr. Rob Brumbaugh, Executive Director of TNC’s Caribbean Division. “Because tourism in the region depends on a thriving natural world, there is a strong economic incentive to support conservation. But, beyond that, one thing we learned when creating these new guidelines is that many tourism leaders simply want to ‘give back’ to nature and know that consumers do as well. So, the industry can be a powerful ally in our work and, in fact, has great capacity to accelerate coral conservation. Tourism businesses often have facilities near reef sites that can host restoration projects; nature enthusiasts on staff, like dive instructors, who can serve as ‘conservation ambassadors’; communications tools, like airport signage, that reach millions of people; and relationships with local governments and communities that can garner support for sustainable ocean use.”
CHTA President Nicola Madden-Greig believes now is a particularly important time for tourism to play a vital role in ocean conservation. She explains, “Tourism in the Caribbean, and around the world, suffered a devastating downturn with the pandemic. But as the industry regains its footing, there is a key window of opportunity to attract a wider group of consumers and protect the resources tourism depends on by offering sustainable travel options and engaging in meaningful conservation. This is where guidance from our conservation partners becomes pivotal. Many tourism businesses are adopting a sustainable approach and would like to actively contribute to coral conservation, but they don’t have the technical expertise. Or they completed a pilot reef restoration project but lack the capacity to scale up the work. As we continue to share scientific research and best practices, and to address the conservation challenges facing the tourism sector, CHTA and CAST aim to transform travel in the Caribbean, so it not only exists in harmony with our natural world but also benefits it.”
CAST Chairman Jamaican hotelier Kyle Mais; CAST founding co-Chairman and Chairman of Grupo Puntacana in the Dominican Republic, Frank Rainieri; and Jake Kheel, Vice President of Fundación Grupo Puntacana, a nonprofit entity of Grupo Puntacana and regional pioneer in coral restoration, agreed that coral restoration is rapidly evolving and needs an “all hands on deck” approach to scale up the much-needed recovery of the Caribbean’s coral reefs. They support A Guide to Coral Reef Restoration for the Tourism Sector as a crucial tool that shares experiences and best practices to empower the tourism industry to participate more actively in reef conservation and expand the region’s ability to restore coral reefs.