By Wildon Kaplan
The islands of the Bahamas are many times called the “isles of perpetual June”. Millions of tourists are attracted to the country for its year-long balmy weather and crystal clear water.Thanks to its abundance of natural beauty, tourism has become the backbone of the Bahamian economy since the mid 20th century. However, global climate change and environmental degradation pose significant risks to the country both economically and environmentally.Given that Wildon, one of our summer interns, grew up on New Providence Island, we invited him to share some thoughts from his recent trip to the Bahamas. Wildon said that he would like to see sustainable development better integrated into the Bahamian economy.
Threats to the Bahamas
Climate change has caused both sea levels and ocean temperatures to rise in the Bahamas. According to Prime Minister Perry Christie, 80% of Bahamian land could be lost to rising sea levels by the end of the century.This trend is not only seen in the Bahamas, but in other low-laying island nations. In addition, Bahamian waters have already experienced an increase in sea surface temperature (SST). These increases could lead to habitat loss food chain distribution for Bahamian marine life. Furthermore, changes in global weather patterns could make the Bahamas more susceptible to stronger, and deadlier hurricanes.
In addition to the effects of climate change, environmental degradation is a severe problem throughout the Bahamas. Many of the country’s coral reefs have already faced damage, or even complete destruction from increased boat traffic, real estate development, and pollutants. Ocean pollution, in the form of oil spills, garbage, and industrial runoff needs to be addressed. These pollutants pose a great threat to marine life in the country, both for the tourism and commercial fishing industries.Invasive species, particularly the arrival of poisonous Lion Fish to Bahamian waters, poses a grave threat to both native fish stocks,tourists, and Bahamians’ health.
Unlike the Bahamas, Cuba, a small island country facing similar challenges, its tourism industry has implemented some nation-wide sustainable programs and marketed the island as a sustainable destination for many years. Even before the lifting of many restrictions on Cuban travel for Americans, Lonely Planet called Cuba an “ecotastic” destination. Since 1997, the Cuban government has been actively promoting a sustainable tourism model through the “Ley del MedioAmbiente de la República de Cuba”, a law which calls for the legal promotion of eco-tourism, and sustainable practices within the tourism industry. For example, Cuba’s coral reefs are some of the most intact and healthy in the Caribbean, given the Cuban government’s creation of a vast network of national parks in the country. These parks not only encompass coastal areas, but also large swaths of Cuba’s forests. Currently, the island has 6 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.
With the eventual opening of the Cuban market to American tourists, I am fearful that the Bahamas will lose a significant market share of American tourists (the largest visitor group to the country) to a “greener” and cheaper Cuba. Thus, it is in the country’s best interests to address the problems associated with climate change and environmental degradation in the Bahamas.
The Green Potential
In 2015, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism embarked on an extensive study of how to make the country a more “sustainable” destination. According to Joy Jibrilu, the Director General for Tourism, “The Bahamas must ensure that tourism not only acts as an economic activity that generates jobs, but tourism must also serve as a catalyst to attaining strategic objectives such as community development, cultural preservation, environmental sustainability and social inclusion”. Thus, it is clear that the government would like to see the Bahamas progress on a more sustainable model of economic development to preserve both nations’ tourism industry, and the country’s natural beauty.
Hopefully, Prime Minister Christie’s government will be able to utilize more green policies to follow up with this study and tackle many of the country’s environmental challenges.However, I also believe that Bahamian businesses need to be deeply involved in sustainable development instead of asking the government to face these challenges alone.
On a recent site visit to the Bahamas, as a representative of Carbon Credit Capital, I was fortunate enough to meet with business owners both in Nassau and in the Family Islands, as well as an executive from the Ministry of Tourism. By meeting with Bahamians both in the public and private sectors, I was able to get a very clear picture of the will and need for sustainable economic practices in the Bahamian economy.
The first stop on my site visit was Harbour Island, one of the Bahamian Family Islands, with an economy based on high-end tourism. As a “you-cannot-miss” tourist destination, Harbour Island is marketed on the island’s natural beauty, such as its pink sand beaches, clear water, and nearly car-free roads (many residents and visitors use golf carts to travel around the island). There, I visited a plethora of small shops, hotels, and restaurants to gauge the need and interest for voluntary carbon offsetting programs, environmental consultancy, and environmental finance services. Within hours of being on Harbour Island, it was clear that there is high growth potential for green business practices on the island. One restaurant owner who I met with had a strong interest in “going green” either through voluntary offsets or through implementing other green initiatives.From our conversation, it seems that local businesses clearly understood that the importance of implementing sustainability initiatives, which would improve their branding value. However, the businesses also lack the access to knowledge about how to implement such programs.
The similar challenge was also present in nation’s capital, Nassau. After visiting a diverse range of firms in the tourism/service industry, I found that like on Harbour Island, local businesses in Nassau were interested in sustainability initiatives, but did not know how to become more sustainable without significantly cutting into their profit margins. While non-Bahamian firms (like foreign cruise lines that service Nassau) have implemented sustainability initiatives with knowledge and technical support from their home countries, it is much harder for Bahamian companies in big or small-sized, to implement these programs, given the lack of Bahamian offsets projects and environmental consultancy firms.
For example, in the Bahamian airline industry, unlike most of the airlines that service the country, none of the Bahamian carriers have a voluntary carbon offset program. This is especially worrisome given that in many other Caribbean nations, local carriers have already implemented carbon offset programs that are comparable to ones used by larger European, American, Canadian, and Latin American airlines. For having a population of only roughly 375,000 people (13% of Jamaica’s total population and 3% of the population of the Dominican Republic), the Bahamas has many more airlines than a typical Caribbean nation, which suggests the country’s carbon output from air travel is above average for the Caribbean region. According to Carbon Credit Capital’s calculations, on an average flight between Nassau and Inagua (the farthest southern island in the Bahamas), a flight would produce 52 Kg Co2e of carbon per passenger. This number increases on international flights, with a passenger on a flight between New York and Nassau producing roughly 159 Kg Co2e.
Not the End
From my site visit, it is clear that Bahamian businesses want to “go green”, but a lack of local consultants and firms offering offset programs makes it difficult for them to implement effective, efficient, and economical sustainability solutions. Based on my observation, cost does not seem to be the biggest barrier in implementing sustainability initiatives in the Bahamas. In this context, it is time for the Bahamian to make their green will into reality.