A new sustainable tourism model: What the Caribbean can learn from Baja, Mexico pt. II

Photo by Desk to Dirtbag

Photo by Desk to Dirtbag

In my last blog “Transitioning from a Tourism-Dependent Region to a Sustainable Paradise: The Caribbean Case Study pt. I” I talked about human pressures on the natural environment in the Caribbean. Even though these pressures are substantial, I think there is a way to turn the most unsustainable tourism-dependent region in the world into a sustainable tourism paradise. In this blog i’ll explain how this can come to be by using the example of Baja, Mexico. 

In Baja, Mexico, several communities have found a way to stabilize harvests, boost tourism and preserve a way of life. It all started after a few disappointing harvests in the 1970s. After years of taking as much from the sea as possible, a few local communities there decided to change the current order of practices and instead tried moving more towards conservation. Today these communities catch more than 90 percent of Mexico’s abalones, a highly valued resource, and are prospering. These micro-conservation efforts are examples of what environmentalists see as the key to conservation that works, the secret ingredient being the community that lives there and the pride they get from seeing the underwater ecosystem recover. 

Five rules have emerged from this example as the key to sustainable, community-supported ocean management. First, it helps if the spot is fairly isolated, with just a community or two using it. This makes it easier to implement change and follow rules. Secondly, the community needs a resource of high value, such as the lobster or abalone in Baja, for income. Strong, visionary community leaders are the third necessity. Without strong leaders, change could take decades or stagnate. Fourth, fisherman need a way to support themselves while the resources recover. And, lastly, the community must be bound together by trust. If no one trusts one and other to respect the rules, then you can make all the rules you want, but they probably won’t be followed.

The first rule is quite realistic to follow, since countries in the Caribbean region are mostly (small) islands (SIDS). The Caribbean Sea also contains various valuable species, such as swordfish and tuna. If you look at the various organizations and initiatives that have popped up over the years, you could argue that there are more than enough visionary leaders and community members that want to see a change in the business as usual. Communities do not want to see their homes being destroyed by tourism and other human pressures. Of course educating the local communities on what is happening in their own backyard is key to getting more strong leaders to step forward and start handling the situation.

For the fourth rule, there are several options possible. In Baja, sustaining fisherman while the resources recover was done by whale petting tours and dive tourism. In the Caribbean this can be done with coral reef and dive or snorkel tourism. Whale tourism could also be plausible in the Northern Caribbean islands, since these get frequented by whales during the breeding season. In Baja, fishermen and community members were also paid by a nonprofit organization to do biological surveys and guard high value areas. Involving the local community in surveying the environment can help turn nonchalance into fascination and will instill in community members an urge to protect and safeguard their own backyard.

The last rule is the trickiest. I myself grew up on the small Caribbean island of Aruba, which has the slogan of “One Happy Island” due to the kindness and friendliness of the local people. This rings true for most of the Caribbean region. The problem is the lack of collaboration of so many countries on this one issue, namely the protection of the Caribbean Sea.

There is a lack of coordinated data collection and sharing, and inability to form a unified authority to protect resources. The Association of Caribbean States (ACS) is one of the organizations working on cooperation between all Caribbean states. According to Ambassador Alfonso Múnera, Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States, it is the history of fragmentation between the islands that makes the political will to cooperation difficult to foster. Although, it is possible to create cooperation and trust between fragmented states. In Baja, they created trust by promoting soccer tournaments. This slowly built trust between villages that had jealously guarded fishing grounds from each other for a long time. Community building can be a crucial factor that can knit together a country and a region, which can in turn bring about increased community engagement, especially for SIDS. Having the community take part in conservation efforts can facilitate harmony on the islands, while safeguarding precious resources and wildlife. 

For too long policy makers and governments have ignored the importance of the local natural environment to the local tourism industry. With climate change already having negative impacts on the marine environment, other human pressures need to be substantially reduced for the ecosystems that these island states rely on to become more resilient to extreme weather events and to stabilize their domestic tourism markets. Tourists and local communities in the Caribbean, but also worldwide, are demanding for sustainable changes to happen. In the long run, sustainability is not only good for business, but also for financial gains.  If island behavior continues business as usual, Caribbean economies will become more and more prone to a potential collapse when white sandy beaches and beautiful coral reefs teeming with life to dive in no longer exist.