The Greening of the Caribbean

written by | Posted on November 7th, 2013

Seagrape Beach Suite at Spice Island Beach in Grenada, whose landscape is made up of native plants.

Seagrape Beach Suite at Spice Island Beach in Grenada, whose landscape is made up of native plants.

If my inbox is any indication of the way the world turns, the Caribbean travel industry has been sending out press releases on sustainability faster than Hollywood can crank out updates on Beyonce, Bullock, and Brangelina. The releases announce hotels going green, island-wide environmental projects, and international conferences about sustainability on innumerable islands, even tiny Eustatia.

For many hotels, sustainability started with “giving the client the option to hang towels on bars if they wished to re-use them,” says Susan Shevlin, CTC and luxury travel consultant with the Tzell Travel Group. Now, she adds, “many resorts have done extensive work on their properties [such as] overhauling the way they collect water.”

Jaclyn Sienna India, co-owner of Florida-based Sienna Charles Travel Agency & Boutique, says, “Existing hotels are adding features like organic gardens, and new properties are being designed to be green from the start.”

This eco-consciousness is a win-win-win for travelers, hotels and the environment. When, for example, guests re-use towels (a practice that started in the 1990s but took a while to trickle down), they feel good, the hotels save money, and there’s less stress on water and energy resources. Sweet. But how does this benefit travel agents? First, understand that “green” (aka sustainable, eco-friendly, environmentally beneficial, conservation-oriented…) covers a lot of issues:

sustainable energy

Almost every month there seems to be a Caribbean conference on alternative or renewable energy, and this is spurring concrete actions. In October, St. Kitts pressed START on a new solar energy farm, and the Dominican Republic’s Cibao (Santiago) airport will soon produce so much solar power it will have excess to sell. Energy-generating windmills pop up on windward shores, and some islands are developing geothermal energy plants (Guadeloupe’s is up and running). Aruba and Saint Lucia have joined Richard Branson’s campaign to swear off all fossil-based fuels.

Economics, not ideology, drives much of this: Islands are expensive places to do business, what with all the shipping costs, air-conditioning, water desalination/purification plants, etc. Of course, the fear of even higher energy costs or, worse, a disruption in supplies, does not directly affect travelers’ choices. Not yet. Still, better hope alternative energy sources kick in before energy surcharges.

climate change

Except for the tiny minority who buy carbon offset credits, this is another issue that doesn’t determine clients’ decisions. However, it’s a major concern in the Caribbean (and it’s one more reason why islands want to cut back on fossil fuel). The UN News Centre reports that “Caribbean countries are on the forefront of climate change,” both fearing it and doing something about it. While officials in low-lying islands worry that rising sea levels could submerge them, mountainous islands are concerned, too, because lucrative coastal resorts may be imperiled. Even the most heartless observer knows that this would not be ideal for agents.

ecotourism activities

Here’s where the greening of the Caribbean more immediately affects your clients’ decisions. Recent years have seen increased participation in ecotourism activities from hiking, birding, nature photography, snorkeling, surfing, kitesurfing, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding, to visiting historic landmarks, voluntourism, turtle protection, whale-watching, and supporting local cultures by visiting the farms and/or purchasing authentic crafts instead of imports, as well as learning about indigenous herbs (no, not that herb).

“Our expansions are driven by demand, and we have seen an increasing interest in…eco-friendly products,” says Danny Melville, chairman of Chukka Caribbean, which offers commissionable adventures in Jamaica, Belize and Turks & Caicos. Red Sail Sports, also commissionable, “has increased the number and variety of tours because of visitor demand for more snorkeling, hiking, and other eco-tourism activities,” says marketing and events manager Suzanne van Grinsven. Van Grinsven adds that Red Sail Sports has earned a Silver Award from EarthCheck, and she’s smart to call attention to it; today, this sort of thing matters to all sorts of visitors, not just the eco-lodge crowd. There’s a widespread yearning to see real parrots in Tobago, jillions of fish in the Caymans, pristine beaches in Antigua, and colonial forts almost anywhere.

Helping newly hatched sea turtles make it to the water is so popular now that these cuties have become the pandas of the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic, St. Kitts and Nevis, and even Haiti are sprucing up historic sites, which are tourism magnets in Antigua, Curaçao, San Juan, Havana, etc. A new, visitor-friendly Rastafarian village in Jamaica is catnip to tourists, several countries now promote agriculture-sustaining farm visits, and Guadeloupe gives visitors a chance to meet the elderly women who preserve Creole culinary traditions. Even petrol-dependent activities like scuba diving are spurring conservation because if the fish don’t thrive, the scuba business goes under (sorry).

“Today, when people can fly almost anywhere, simply going for the beach is not enough,” declares India. “Our clients want to get to the core of the island they’re visiting.”

the restoration of ecosystems and wildlife

The catch is, they won’t find any core if an island’s natural and manmade landmarks have succumbed to overdevelopment and pollution. To that end, Caribbean governments, NGOs, and businesses are doing things like:

  • Creating parks and marine reserves that protect wildlife and attract visitors.
  • The U.S. Territories and other Caribbean governments are imposing limits on fishing. You just caught a trophy fish? Good! Smile for the camera, then release the fish.
  • From Cuba to Bonaire, countries are creating new coral habitats (Grenada’s underwater sculpture garden is a must-see). Healthy coral = healthy fish = healthy tourism.
  • The Dominican Republic, among others, recently tightened restrictions on hunting. Today, the wildlife is worth more alive than dead.
  • Islands are rushing to preserve their heritage—Amerindian petroglyphs, colonial buildings in Santo Domingo, sugar mills on Marie-Galante, a colonial-era train on St. Kitts….

competition among hotels to go green

Again, hotels need to use resources more efficiently so they can keep costs down. To that end, much of what makes the tourism business green—re-use and recycling programs, water-conservation measures, outreach to local communities—may not be apparent to guests. At the same time, visitors are demanding more eco-tourism activities. Here are a few—just a few—examples of hotels responding to these challenges:

  • Because they want to be perceived in a positive light, many—and not just eco-lodges—have applied for Green Globe recognition. And if they get it, they crow about it, because this has become one of the best marketing tools since a four-letter word that begins with “F” (and ends with “e”).
  • Jamaica’s Half Moon, A Rock Resort, is “Exhibit A” of a longstanding classic, replete with golf, that’s turned green. Guests won’t notice most of its Green Globe-winning measures, but they do enjoy the furniture created onsite by local craftsmen and meals featuring produce from Half Moon’s organic garden. They also participate in Half Moon’s Pack for a Purpose and Guest Dollar Donation programs, which help the community.
  • Tryall Club, another Jamaican classic with Green Globe honors, was a pioneer in recycling. Today its sustainability practices help control costs in its already expensive villas and golf facilities. Moreover, Tryall offers guests first-rate nature programs, and its good works in the community help sustain an engaged staff.
  • The Dominican Republic’s Puntacana Resort & Club aids locals through its Punta Cana Foundation, while its Punta Cana Ecological Foundation administers a nature reserve. Activities there include swimming in freshwater lagoons, spotting giant iguanas and hawks, and taking ecological tours by foot, Segway, or horseback.
  • In March, Hermitage Bay became one of six Antigua hotels to win Green Globe status with its “reduce, reuse, and recycle” policy.

Hermitage Bay’s “zero food miles” mantra means fresh ingredients for the restaurant, and low night lights on the beach encourage sea turtles to nest there, a move popular with both reptiles and bipeds.

  • Couples at Aruba’s Bucuti & Tara Beach Resorts may not notice the solar panels, but they will see beautiful furnishings of organic and sustainable materials. Here’s an example of how tourism has evolved: Guests love the resort’s volunteer beach clean-up.
  • When Spice Island Beach Resort on Grenada had to rebuild after a hurricane, it installed solar water heaters, a chemical-free pool-cleansing system (look, Ma, no red-eye!), and landscaping with native plants. Spice Island also cleans coral reefs and serves guests locally sourced food.
  • Dominica’s Green Globe-certified Rosalie Bay—which is now offering 15 percent commission—seems small enough for the “eco-lodge” label, yet its 28 (energy-efficient) rooms and suites look too elegant for that. Rosalie Bay’s amenities include a nature-inspired spa, local art, a turtle-protection program, hikes, nature walks, snorkeling, and diving.
  • The BodyHoliday, LeSPORT, in Saint Lucia, pursues many eco-friendly practices, but what most impresses us is the resort’s comprehensive menu of low-impact (on the environment, if not on you) activities, from archery to sailing, from gentle nature walks to hikes up the Pitons.
  • One of Barbados’ six Green Globe winners is Atlantis Submarines (which also operates in Aruba), not just for its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, but for educating visitors about the fragility of ecosystems.
  • You know the sustainability ethos has gone mainstream when a complicated operation like Sandals upgrades 20 all-inclusives to be greener. Sure, plenty of guests want to party in the pools, but they’re using the new paddleboards, too, and they’re signing up for Island Routes’ rafting, tubing, mountain biking and ziplining trips.

The takeaway? Even apolitical travelers who just want to go snorkeling need healthy ecosystems and hotels whose costs aren’t out of control, so they’re increasingly conscious of sustainability. “This is affecting clients’ decisions,” says India. Adds Shevlin, “Weather patterns are changing, flora and fauna are becoming extinct in some cases, and this will affect the clients’ concerns…. At least I hope so.”

pleasant holidays and sustainable tourism

“I’ve seen an increasing number of green initiatives throughout the Caribbean in recent years by island nations and resorts,” says Jeffrey Lee, product director, Caribbean, for Pleasant Holidays. He credits resorts for “getting on board with their own programs,” adding, “staying green actually saves green…and that translates into more affordable stays for their guests.”

Pleasant Holidays offers vacations in 22 Caribbean islands, and many of its hotel partners have solid green credentials. For example, in Jamaica Pleasant offers 10 properties in the Sandals family and the Green Globe-winning Half Moon and Jamaica Inn. All of its Antigua partners—Hermitage Bay, the Verandah Resort & Spa, the Sandals properties (“Pleasant Holidays’ president and CEO Jack Richards and his wife found the Sandals Foundation’s voluntourism program very rewarding,” says Lee)—have won awards for sustainability. Lee applauds Aruba’s Bucuti & Tara Beach Resorts for “developing practices that go beyond Green Globe certification.” He also admires Ritz-Carlton resorts’ Jean-Michel Cousteau Ambassadors of the Environment education programs.

“Younger travelers in particular are becoming increasingly aware of how their actions impact the world,” says Lee. “Sustainable tourism is here to stay.”

(800) 442-3234; pleasantholidays.com/PleasantHolidaysWeb/TALoginDisplay.do

tour operator intel

funjet vacations

“We see evidence of the greening of the Caribbean through the commitment our resort partners are making to operate with sustainability as a core objective,” says Lynn Clark, v.p. of travel agency engagement at Funjet Vacations, a division of Mark Travel. “Several of our partners have invested in the Green Globe and the EarthCheck certification processes. For example, Iberostar Hotels and Resorts, which has three properties in Jamaica, is Green Globe certified, and Sandals on five Caribbean islands participate in the EarthCheck program. We proudly feature our resort partners not only for the commitment they are making to the environment but, also for the commitment they make to their employees and local communities. In addition, we offer activities and excursions through Viator.”
(888) 558-6654; funjet.com

GOGO worldwide vacations

“As a tour operator that sells only to travel agents, we’ve seen the greening of destinations help promote tourism,” says Jim Tedesco, director of GOGO Worldwide Vacations. He sees actual eco-lodges and resorts as “giving travel agents another niche market…. Agents can really get a sense of what a client is looking for based on their budget, preferred activities, and the like, but also by using that information to determine if a green-friendly property would be an added perk they would enjoy…. Being a niche market, this could make the service provided by that agent stand out even more.”
(877) 901-4646; gogowwv.com

classic vacations

“We have many hotels in our program that are Green Globe certified or hold other environmental certifications,” says Jonna Jackson, sr. director of global product for Classic Vacations. “We make sure our reservation agents have the details of these services and awards so they can communicate the benefits to travel agents.” Classic Vacations is so committed to sustainable travel that it has added a section to its website dedicated to eco-friendly hotels. There are no Caribbean properties there just yet, but that will change.
(800) 635-1333; classicvacations.com/travel-agent/login

travel bound

Travel Bound’s parent company, the Kuoni Travel Group, is invested in sustainable tourism practices, and we genuinely believe that helping consumers make informed choices about their holidays will set us apart in the future,” says Elliott Frisby, external communications manager for Kuoni Global Travel Services/Travel Bound. “The latest surveys indicate that consumers increasingly see sustainability as something they expect their travel company to do, and the growing demand for more interactive and authentic local experiences are supporting this trend.” He adds, “We have found that hotels with high sustainability ratings provide a superior service to our customers, and their staffs are motivated and proud to be part of a company that cares for them, the surrounding community, and the environment.”
(800) 808-9541; rbs.booktravelbound.com

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue-archive):
The Real Caribbean: Grenada & Martinique (April 2013)

contact information
Atlantis Submarines:
(800) 381-0237; atlantisadventures.com
Bucuti & Tara Beach Resorts: (888) 428-2884; bucuti.com or bucuti.com/travel-industry
Chukka Caribbean: (877) 424-8552; chukkacaribbean.com or chukkacaribbean.com/travel-agents
Half Moon, A Rock Resort: (800) 438-7241; halfmoon.rockresorts.com or rockresorts.com/info/travelagent.asp
Hermitage Bay: (855) 562-8080; hermitagebay.com
Puntacana Resort & Club: (888) 442-2262; puntacana.com
Red Sail Sports: (305) 454-2538; redsailaruba.com
Rosalie Bay: (877) 732-2864; rosaliebay.com
Sandals Resorts: (888) 726-3257; sandals.com or sandals.com/tas
Spice Island Beach Resort: (800) 501-8603; spiceislandbeachresort.com
The BodyHoliday, LeSPORT: (800) 544-2883; thebodyholiday.com
Tryall Club: (800) 238-5290; tryallclub.com or tryallclub.com/travel-agents