Sustainable Tourism Specialist Outlines Pivotal Issues for Mesoamerican and Caribbean Countries

Mainstreaming tourism into the national development agenda is a first, critical step, Says Seleni Matus

Sustainable Tourism Specialist Outlines Pivotal Issues for Mesoamerican and Caribbean Countries

For countries heavily dependent on the tourism industry, the effects of climate change could be devastating, as global warming threatens to destroy the environment that visitors find so attractive. In her talk on Tuesday, Feb 21, sustainable tourism specialist Seleni Matus proposed some ways to address the tourism implications of climate change, as well as other pivotal issues faced by countries in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean. Sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, her talk, “Course Correction in Tourism: paving the way for sustainable destinations,” also demonstrated how some countries have begun to overcome their newfound challenges.

Matus, currently a senior advisor for destinations with Sustainable Travel International, was the first president of the Mesoamerican Ecotourism Alliance, former director of tourism for the Belize Tourism Board, and board member for the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

Climate change and accompanying deterioration of natural assets has profound implications for many destinations, Matus said. According to the annually released Mesoamerican Report Card, the amount of reefs considered to be in critical condition rose from 6 percent in 2008 to 30 percent in 2010 as a result of warming temperatures. This, Matus says, is “frightening information.”

The infrastructure in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean will also be in jeopardy if climate change continues at its current rate and global temperatures continue to rise. Most airports in the area, for example, would have to be completely rebuilt because they would become submerged, if global-warming-induced melting caused a sea-level rise of just one meter. “This makes these incredible vacation destinations very vulnerable,” Matus says, “and it is also the reason why leaders in the areas need to think differently.”

Unfortunately, government responses in affected areas have been limited, Matus explains. Most of the remedial action has been taken by voluntary initiatives led by non-government organizations (NGOs) and private sector businesses.

With international certification by EarthCheck (formerly GreenGlobe) as the ultimate goal, many destinations have taken the opportunity to participate in local sustainability initiatives to gain worldwide recognition. Such efforts include the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI) and the Caribbean Hotel Energy Efficiency Action (CHEEA), both of which were fairly successful at guiding hotels in the area toward a more sustainable model.  The MARTI, for example, was able to encourage 32,000 of the area’s 80,000 hotel rooms and 200 tour operators to participate in programs promoting good practices, like energy conservation and efficient waste management, which will reduce carbon dioxide emissions and prevent further global warming.

Though this is a promising result, much more work needs to be done, Matus says. Government involvement will be critical, and mainstreaming tourism into the national development agenda is the first step. “In the majority of countries, there has been a disconnect between government officials saying how important tourism is to their country, and them actually taking steps to preserve it,” she says.

The Costa Rican government is an exception to this problem and serves as what Matus calls a “beacon” for government involvement in sustainability issues. Through the Gift of Happiness campaign, the government raffled all-expense-paid trips to Costa Rica totaling one million dollars. All the hotels involved were certified sustainable — meaning they made a significant effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — and their dedication to the environment was emphasized to all the winners who visited. “This was a major investment in marketing only the top sustainability performers, and was a great move by the government,” Matus says.

Matus admits that sustainable destination management is going to be challenging, because it involves balancing the expectations of visitors (the demand) with the needs of the industry, community, and the natural environment (the supply), through planning and ongoing monitoring, but it must be done.

 “Changes are needed in the way these popular tourist destinations are handling sustainability issues,” Matus says, “and the time for these changes is now.”

-- Maria Minsker

Maria Minsker ’13 is an intern in Marketing & Communications at Johnson.

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