Ten years ago (Express, June 10, 2002) I first wrote on conservation tourism for Tobago and I have revisited this subject at intervals since. With the current spotlight on Tobago for constitutional reform and THA elections due shortly, I shall now present an abridged version of that original article.
There are two routes to tourism development for islands such as Tobago: sun, sand and sea, typically the approach taken by most Caribbean countries, and which involves large-scale developments and their attendant ills (such as has taken place in the south-west of Tobago); or community-based projects that emphasise sustainable development and conservation of cultural and natural resources.
Surveys conducted in Tobago a few years ago to determine the approach preferred by the people indicated that the majority of folk are in favour of an approach that allows conservation of the culture and natural environment of the island. Thus a policy of conservation tourism should be considered. A concept of conservation tourism has been proposed by an acquaintance of mine, Gerry Kemp, a landscape designer in the UK:
"Tourism is a potentially effective way of expanding and deepening economic activity through the expansion of the population of a community by short stay persons with a disposition to expenditure on services that provide value.
To be effective over the long term that population expansion must be of value to the tourist and to the host community. The community must therefore conserve, develop and protect the things and culture that are of value to its residents and to its selected tourism target markets.
To provide meaningful service there must be the development of a relationship of mutual respect and thus an inter-dependence between provider (local resident) and recipient (visitor) and their co-management of the service.
This approach: recognises that conservation must be balanced with development in accordance with community values; seeks to integrate the activities of visitors with the normal activities of the host community encouraging both parties to learn about each other and to respect the community's tourism assets; requires effective community involvement in the determination of tourism policy."
Thus conservation tourism is that approach to effective tourism management that optimises the conservation of a community's assets (its distinctive competencies, cultural mores and natural resources).
In Trinidad an exciting approach to tourism development can be seen at the Asa Wright Nature Centre. This facility has high occupancy for most of the year and this is achieved not by traditional television but by advertisements in nature magazines. The majority of visitors are mature persons who enjoy the natural environment and many of these visitors pay return visits. The guides for the nature trails are young people from the district who are well trained and competent at their job.
There are nature centres in Tobago but some of these are not community based and are expensive. Construction of luxury hotels, villas and golf courses, which only very wealthy tourists and local residents could afford to visit, may involve use of good agricultural land and may adversely affect the environment.
A major issue in the south-west of Tobago is sewage disposal, even with the existing developments, and one can imagine the problems that would follow on further developments of that type. The disposal of organic matter into the sea has fatal effects on the coral reefs and the quality of the seawater—the very assets on which the success of the large-scale developments depend!
The south-west of Tobago has already been developed in a certain way and that cannot be reversed. However, there could be a halt on any further such developments to save the rest of Tobago from investors whose main motivation is profit and who, if projects in Tobago fail, will move on to exploit some other unspoilt Caribbean island. The people of Tobago will have to live with the after-effects.
Tobago could attract students and research scientists who have an interest in undisturbed tropical rainforests and tropical marine life. These are easily accessible in Tobago, whereas in many countries visitors travel many miles through difficult terrain to reach virgin forests. Arrangements should be made for visiting the Forest Reserve without damage to the environment (including an elevated walkway at canopy height). Local youth could be trained and certified as guides to ensure respect for conservation. Social scientists and historians will be interested in the culture of a people who live on a small island (which was fought over by the great powers of Europe not too long ago) and who have traditions brought mainly from Africa, but also from Europe and India (via Trinidad). Facilities for conferences and accommodation for visiting scientists and research students are needed.
The revival of the cocoa industry with traditional fermenting, drying of beans and production of cocoa "sticks" would allow opening of cocoa houses (popular in Europe before the advent of coffee) where traditional "Cocoa Tea" would be served. Fine flavour chocolates could be manufactured locally. There is already one such enterprise in Tobago.
The possibilities are endless and exciting for the development of conservation tourism linked to the local environment and culture on a sustainable basis. There may be fewer visitors but those who come will spend more and a greater proportion of the expenditure will be retained locally.
An international conference should be organised in Tobago to declare the island a World Conservation Centre. Endorsement of this concept should be sought at that conference from such organisations as: World Wide Fund for Nature, World Conservation Council, United Nations Organisations (UNEP, UNDP, UNESCO-World Heritage Sites), Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew, UK), New York Botanic Gardens (USA), Royal Zoological Society (UK), Caribbean Tourism Organisation. Such organisations (and others not mentioned here) are well known internationally and so will ensure that Tobago becomes known to an appropriate visitor market.
• John Spence is professor emeritus, UWI. He also served as an independent senator