Editorial | Towards an inclusive tourism
It will probably take months until the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) publishes an authoritative report on its conference in Montego Bay on the development and continued growth of the sector in a fashion that is not only sustainable, but economically and socially rewarding to people employed in the industry.
Jamaica and its neighbours in the Caribbean, however, can't afford to await any such document to begin an alignment of their industries with the ideas and concepts being discussed, or are likely to emerge, over the next two days. For, not only is tourism the most critical pillar of many of their, they, in several respects, face challenges and dangers that give relevance to the Montego Bay confab. At least, Jamaica does.
The good news is that Jamaica, as have other Caribbean countries, has long since resolved its ideological battle over tourism - in terms of the industry's long-term economic worth as well as its social worth. The first element was, or perhaps is, easiest to determine in tourism's favour. The industry, globally, has proved itself far more resilient to the peaks and troughs that impact other industries - or, it tends to rebound from the downs much faster than most.
INCREASE IN ARRIVALS
Indeed, at an annual average increase of around four per cent, international tourist arrivals have grown in recent years substantially faster than the global economy - a trend that is set to be repeated in 2017. Significantly, tourism weathered the adversity of the Great Recession as well as, or better than, most sectors. According to UNWTO data, the 1.235 billion international tourist arrivals in 2016 indicated an increase of 300 million more travellers than in 2008.
Jamaica and the Caribbean are part of this growth, with their arrivals growing by 2.8 per cent and 4.2 per cent, respectively, in 2016. Jamaica is also enjoying significant new investment in room capacity - with an increased of eight per cent last year - and recent figures indicated a welcome uptick in gross earnings, which have in recent years hovered at around US$2 billion, which made it the second largest earner of foreign exchange, after remittances. Analysed from another vantage point, tourism accounts for around six per cent of Jamaica GDP and directly employs more than 30,000 and many thousands more indirectly.
But there are significant threats to this increasingly vital industry, not least the threat posed by climate change associated with global warning. Like many sea-and-sand destinations, mostly small island developing states, Jamaica and its Caribbean neighbours are particularly susceptible to rising sea levels. We, therefore, have a stake in climate-mitigation efforts, both as they relate to the sea and other elements of the natural environment that make life in these islands habitable and desirable.
In other words, it is critical that the natural environment is managed in a way that it can, in the first place, sustain the lives and livelihoods of those of us who reside here, and second, so that we can welcome tourists and the economic value they represent.
But in concert with the United Nations' development goals and the Montego Bay conference's theme, tourism's economic growth has to be inclusive. People who work in the sector have to see in the jobs they do economic value for themselves and their communities.
Tourism has, indeed, lifted many people out of poverty and shown the potential to transform communities, but hasn't always lived up to its possibilities. The squalor of the informal communities in which many tourism workers live, not very far from posh resorts, tells its own stories of a shortfall in inclusiveness. So, too, do the tales of the weaknesses of the linkages between tourism and the rest of the domestic economy.
The good thing is that these things are being talked about in a serious and programmatic way. Now, it is for them to be acted on.