The Caribbean Dilemma

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The tourist industry itself trained Americans to think of the Caribbean as “sun, sand and sea,” and to think of the diverse islands as interchangeable, Mr. Mignott said. Other than the sea they share, the islands are different, each with a unique geological and human history. The older islands to the west, including Cuba, are formed of limestone and billions of shells and skeletons of ancient marine life, while the black cliffs and crags of the younger islands along the eastern edge — where the Caribbean and the Atlantic tectonic plates grind against each other — are relics of violent prehistoric volcanic events.

In my years exploring the Caribbean, I’ve visited Guadeloupe, Bonaire, St. John, Vieques, Jamaica and Tobago, and met people who have in common that they were born with the sound of the sea in their ears, but otherwise possess unique traditions, history, language and culture, that reward visitors with a little curiosity.

The Caribbean tourism industry could take this opportunity to differentiate the islands, and maybe even put responsibility on travelers to go beyond the resort walls or cruise ship all-inclusives and explore local food and culture.

Can it happen? As airlines and cruise ships reduce capacity, and the tourist industry consolidates, the islands need to act deliberately, said Mr. Riley. “Are we going to leave it to happenstance or are we going to plan for more socially responsible tourism and put policies in place that redress and undo damage to the environment?” he asked.

The premier of the island of Nevis, Mark Brantley, said the pandemic has taught the Caribbean that overreliance on tourism is not the best model and that Covid-19 could mark the end of the era of cheap tourism and mega cruises. “Jurisdictions are going to pivot to more tourism pitched at the luxury market, with smaller numbers of people and arguably a better yield,” he said. Additionally, he predicted that local industries, especially agriculture and agri-processing, will become more important sectors of the Caribbean economies. “Countries will be trying to diversify, where tourism continues to be important, but not the only game in town anymore.”

Mr. Chastanet said that when the pandemic struck, St. Lucia was already midway into a national program to promote what he called “village tourism,” sprucing up hamlets with new infrastructure and training and providing seed money for resort workers and hotel chefs to open up their own small-scale, boutique operations. “The things we were doing just got reinforced by Covid,” he said.

“We really hope if one good thing happens from the pandemic, it will be that travel is more thoughtful, and travelers are more conscious about the environment,” said Mr. Mignott, the former deputy tourism director for Jamaica. “We don’t think people are just going to go back like Covid never happened. We really think it will be different.”

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