PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (AlertNet) - Regina Dumas, who runs the Coffee River Resort on the cigar-shaped Caribbean island of Tobago, worries that local tourism is suffering from increasingly uncertain weather.
“Last year’s dry season was excessively dry, and this year we’ve had excessive rain,” she says. “When people spend their money to come to the island, they’re disappointed with the erratic weather we’ve been experiencing. It’s just unpredictable.”
The resort offers nature trails, bird watching, a diverse range of flora and fauna, and trips to the rain forest - the oldest in the Western hemisphere.
“We don’t know what to tell our guests when they can’t go out to the trails because of the unseasonable rains or because of intense heat,” Dumas frets.
Tobago, the smaller sister island of industrialised Trinidad, promotes itself as an eco-tourism destination, attracting visitors from around the world to its rainforests, wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs, which host a colourful array of birds and fish.
Orville London, chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly, which administers the island, agrees that the local climate appears to be shifting, bringing larger storms.
“We can no longer be considered to be outside of the hurricane belt,” he explains. “Once there was the perception that we were almost immune from hurricanes, but recent changes have indicated that this is not necessarily the case based on the kind of natural challenges we've had in recent years.”
Besides more extreme weather patterns, London notes that other impacts linked with climate change, such as coastal erosion and coral bleaching, are starting to be felt locally. Studies are being carried out to determine how best the island can prepare itself for global warming.
Buccoo Reef, Tobago’s largest coral reef which attracts snorkellers and scuba-divers, is being damaged by coral bleaching. “That is presenting a serious issue for us, and we have to ensure the bleaching is not made worse by the (changes to) ecology and pollutants that are coming into this area,” London says.
The Caribbean, mainly comprised of small island nations, is the world’s most tourist-dependent region, and one of the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change.
Tourism accounts for around 13 percent of the Caribbean’s gross domestic product (GDP), and is an important economic driver. It brings in employment, foreign exchange earnings and foreign investment. But experts say it faces a serious threat from rising sea levels, coral bleaching, increasingly powerful tropical hurricanes and longer periods of drought.
The World Bank estimates the potential impact of climate change on all Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries at $9.9 billion a year, or around 11.3 percent of total annual GDP.
Winston Moore, a lecturer in economics at the University of the West Indies in Barbados, fears tourism will be hurt by variable weather patterns and damage to coastal resources, including coral reefs.
“Climate change can also lead to changes in the tourism features of island destinations as the traditional tourist season from December to April becomes drier and hotter,” he explains. “If these (climatic) changes...lead to a significant impact on visitor satisfaction, then a decline in tourism demand is also likely.”
Coral reefs play a key role in the economies of most Caribbean islands. A major resource for local communities, they are also important for the tourist industry. The World Resources Institute estimates that they contribute about one fifth of GDP in the Eastern Caribbean island of St Lucia, through their benefits for tourism, fisheries and shoreline protection.
Climate change is likely to lead to a decline in coral calcification and reef growth as rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere cause ocean acidification, which reduces the availability of calcium carbonate minerals that are essential to coral growth.
The proportion of reefs likely to be affected ranges from 40 to 80 percent, according to Moore, the author of a recently published book, “The Impact of Climate Change on Caribbean Tourism Demand”.
“There are various climate change scenarios that climate scientist have to consider. The main story here is that it will impact on the majority of corals around the world,” he explains.
The academic says sea-level rise associated with climate change could have even greater implications for holiday destinations, as most public assets including power generation and tourism infrastructure are located close to coastlines.
A report from CARIBSAVE, a partnership between the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre and Oxford University, estimates that, if sea-levels rise by one metre, over 110,000 people in CARICOM countries will be displaced from their homes. Many more will be put at greater risk from storm surges, and nearly one-third of major tourism resorts and airports will be threatened.
Gail Henry of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation says the region’s heavy reliance on tourism means the expected effects of climate change must be taken into account when planning for the future.
“These impacts add to our inherent vulnerability as small island developing states, and they will undoubtedly impact on various facets of the tourism product such as the coastal areas, biodiversity and availability of resources such as water, which are critical to tourism sustainability,” she says. The sector cannot continue with business as usual, she says.
Loss of biodiversity on sea and land, for instance, will bring the need to develop attractions other than diving, snorkelling and nature-based tourism.
“Where and how we build tourist resorts, air and seaports, roads and other infrastructure will have to be reviewed,” Henry says. “This will be of even greater urgency unless climate change adaptation efforts - such as investing in effective coastal management systems and defences, and curbing or retrofitting tourism developments in coastal or other vulnerable areas - are not explored now.”
In a recent paper for the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), Tom Birch and Murray Simpson said climate change poses a double-edged threat for small islands like Tobago, as it could harm both supply and demand for tourism.
“Rising sea levels, increasing temperatures and more frequent and intense storms will damage the island’s natural assets, such as coral reefs and beaches. This could have a heavy impact on tourism, which will also be affected by climate policy in ‘source’ countries,” they wrote.
Overseas tourists could be put off due to growing awareness of the carbon emitted by long-haul flights or by environmental taxes on aviation, such as that imposed on travel from Britain. That could make Caribbean destinations less attractive for European visitors.
The Caribbean Tourism Organisation’s Henry says governments that depend on the natural beauty of their countries to attract visitors must start by understanding how and to what extent climate change impacts will affect them over time, from both a scientific and socio-economic perspective.
They should then cultivate a sustainable approach to tourism development and management, which goes hand in hand with sound environmental policies and regulations, as well as conserving biodiversity.
“Although the tourism industry has proven its resilience over time, climate change adaptation is not an option for the Caribbean - it is a matter of socio-economic sustainability,” Henry says.
Linda Hutchinson-Jafar is the Reuters stringer in Trinidad and Tobago, and editor of online magazine Earth Conscious.