Environmentalists believe the Cockpit Country in Trelawny is a good place for terrestrial tourism as opposed to bauxite mining.
Gareth Manning, Sunday Gleaner Reporter
Government is about to commission a mid-term review of the key policy governing the tourism sector - the Master Plan for Sustainable Tourism Development - six years after its introduction. Tourism officials disclosed at a Gleaner Editors' Forum in Montego Bay last week that the tendering process had ended and Government was now sifting through bids from a number of consulting firms.
"What we intend with the mid-term review is for an analysis of what has taken place so far, in terms of our ability to implement," explained Althea Heron, senior director of tourism policy and monitoring in the Ministry of Tourism. "They are to assess how far we have gone; did we fulfil the targeted goals? And then they are to propose the way forward. How can we change what we have done?" added Heron.
The master plan has been at the centre of criticism from some environmental lobbyists who have been contending that because of its poor implementation, the policy has failed to promote sustainable tourism development, especially in light of the risks presented by climate change. "It is expected that they (the contracted consultants) would consider climate change and its impact on the tourism sector," Heron told Gleaner editors.
The current tourism master plan gives specific guidelines and makes recommendations on how infrastructural development in the industry should be pursued. It also recommends ways in which the tourism product can be improved while balancing environmental sustainability.
But environmental lobbyists argue that in spite of its clear guidelines and recommen-dations, the master plan is still not playing the role it should in protecting the country's prime foreign-exchange-earning sector, because some of its recommendations are being ignored by public agencies that initiate, plan and monitor investment projects.
Sense of urgency
Environmentalists contend there is a clear sense of urgency for full adoption of the recommendations of the master plan because of the ramifications of global climate change faced by small developing countries like Jamaica.
Montego Bay-based community develop-ment activist, O. Dave Allen, points to the lack of a key agency or board to police adherence to the recommendations of the master plan - a situation that has resulted in the implementation of projects, particularly large hotels, that pose a threat to environmental sustainability. Allen argues, for instance, that he has not seen simul-taneous housing and resort development, as proposed in the master plan.
"We have moved ahead like we did in the 1960s to build hotels in Montego Bay without the social infrastructure," he commented. "We have continued on that path and what we are seeing now, instead of contained land capturing, we are seeing increased land capturing, leading to the development of squatter communities."
The squatter communities are among the most vulnerable to climate change because they often lack basic supporting amenities. He said while some housing units - 2,500 - were installed some time ago in stride with hotel growth, the city has outgrown that supply and more was needed to complement the hotel room stock on the north coast.
Executive director of the Southern Trelawny Environment Agency, Hugh Dixon, believes the master plan needs revamping and its enforcement is critical to the survival of the tourist sector and the economy in general, as the effects of environmental degradation become more apparent.
Dixon argued further that the tourist sector should be seeking to promote a more terrestrial form of tourism that would earn income while promoting conservation of the natural resources.
"A review just can't be a simple process. It might even involve rethinking the whole master plan, bearing in mind what is now at hand," he stated. He remarked that a clear system of how the plan would be managed was critical to its enforcement.
In response, Heron stated: "What was said is all a part of what the consultants will have to do: To look back and to look forward and assess what has taken place and what has not taken place and make recommendations for the way forward."
She explained that the plan was an integrative one which required different aspects of it to be enforced by different government agencies. Some of those agencies include the National Environment and Planning Agency, Jamaica Trade and Invest, the parish councils and the Ministry of Tourism. "Sustainable development is an integrative process and there is no one individual or sector that can wholly implement sustainable development. Each sector has a responsibility for sustainable development, but it has to be done in collaboration. No man is an island," she stated.
Without specifying, Heron said if there were to be a single agency to police the master plan, it would have to be an authority higher than the agencies involved in the plan.
'We need to change our strategy'
Environmentalists are advising Government to seek alternatives to beachfront con-struction projects in order to protect the tourism industry from any fall-out from global climate change.
Several massive hotels have been constructed on the north coast over the last five years. But environmentalists argue that such activities are counterproductive, because rising sea levels as a result of climate change will affect vulnerable coastal zones.
"As a country, we will not be looking as attractive as we looked 14 or 15 years ago as a destination when we focused on sea, sand and sun. I think we need to look at a change in our strategy of what we are selling out there," advises Paula Hurlock, chairman of the Dolphin Head Trust.
"I know that our country has focused more on nature-based and community tourism, but we need to (review) that, because people won't be coming here for sand, sun and sea anymore," she adds.
It is a point Hugh Dixon, executive director of the Southern Trelawny Environment Agency, agrees with. He says Government must take the approach that aims at both sustaining the environment and generating income. He says Jamaica is in need of a product that offers a different experience from other destinations in North and Central America and its Caribbean com-petitors. Nature and community, Dixon argues, provide that.
"A shift in gears to terrestrial tourism allows people to see the beauty of the landscape, and by so doing, you generate income in the small communities and preserve the landscape," he tells The Sunday Gleaner.
Likewise, he thinks the country also needs to focus on an alternative to bauxite - another of the country's main industries - if it is to go the route of nature and community tourism. The shift, Dixon remarks, is necessary because it estimated that only 50 years of bauxite reserves remain.
"We need to look at bauxite in terms of the damage it is creating and in terms of the potential economic value of what it removes and how we are going to cope after the recovery period," he says.
According to Dixon, there needs to be a full study of the economic value of the country's biodiveristy in areas such as the Cockpit Country, which are being sought for mining, then weigh this against the potential economic value of bauxite reserves.