Caribbean islands are experimenting with new tourism avenues as the impacts of climate change take their toll
By Sophie Hares
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, July 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Promoter Ryan Kruger scouted five potential locations for his Vujaday techno festival before opting to hold the five-day event in Barbados, flying in DJs to play to around 1,500 party-goers at a string of dramatic locations around the island in April.
Now planning to return next year, Vujaday - alongside jazz and gospel festivals, fertility holidays, sports camps, genealogy and marijuana vacations - is one of a patchwork of tourism niches boosting revenues for Caribbean islands.
"We had this concept of creating a destination event outside of North America where North Americans and Western Europeans mostly could go when it was cold," said Toronto-based Kruger, whose RKET Group had some government support for the event.
"Our people and our operations put about 4.3 million Barbados dollars ($2.15 million) into the local economy."
For the world's most tourism-dependent region, finding fresh markets could become increasingly important as the impacts of climate change - from rising sea levels to reef degradation and more powerful storms - take their toll.
Swiped last year by hurricanes Irma and Maria, the low-lying Turks and Caicos Islands are analysing the risks global warming poses to the tourism industry after the ferocious storms cost $500 million and damaged the popular Grace Bay beach.
"At the end of the day, (if) we lose our beaches, we have economic challenges," Premier Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The British overseas territory is also selling itself as a location for eco-tourism, weddings and conferences - and is even reaching out to star basketball players seeking somewhere warm to run training camps off-season.
According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), about 30 million people flocked to the region last year, bringing much-needed foreign exchange, and supporting businesses and jobs on many islands struggling with high levels of public debt.
In Barbados, the World Travel & Tourism Council estimates nearly 40 percent of jobs and economic activity derive directly or indirectly from tourism - but climate change is a threat.
"The whole business of climate change has been part of ... the sustainable development discussion for a long time in the Caribbean," said CTO head Hugh Riley. "We understand the reality of girding our loins for the future."
Trinidad and Tobago's exuberant carnival and Barbados' Crop Over Festival have long pulled in tens of thousands each year.
But now cuisine, motorsports, horse-racing, rum-plantation and wellness stays are among the tourism draws growing in popularity, he added.
"More and more travellers, vacation planners and their clients are becoming aware of the fact the Caribbean is a region of tremendous diversity," he said.
The unique history of the region is a pull, with Havana, Bridgetown and Santo Domingo on UNESCO's World Heritage list. Curacao's synagogue, the oldest in continuous use in the Americas, attracts people investigating Jewish history, he said.
As some islands look at legalising marijuana, holidays for both medical and recreational users could also appeal down the track, said Riley.
For debt-burdened islands in the region, balancing the cost of protecting the natural assets that lure tourists, such as coral reefs and beaches, against the lucrative returns from development remains a tricky act, said one academic.
"Conservation is not free - it's costly," said Peter Schuhmann, a University of North Carolina economics professor.
Education for overseas students has long been a source of income, with countries like Grenada enrolling them in its university and medical school.
But a number of countries are now considering medical tourism, which aside from the Cayman Islands, has been slow to expand in the region despite easy access for U.S. patients.
For Jessica Wilson, the decision to take an "IVF holiday" to Barbados with her husband was simple, with the offer of a personalised service in a holiday destination at considerably lower cost than in her home city of Atlanta, Georgia.
"It's a very stressful process - until you're over there, you don't realise how much you can't beat this vacation-type atmosphere," said the academic advisor.
Juliet Skinner, whose Barbados Fertility Centre promotes "treatment in paradise with less stress", performs around 450 fresh IVF cycles a year in the internationally accredited clinic, and says Americans are becoming her biggest client base.
The knock-on benefits feed through to the local economy, as patients usually spend two weeks in Barbados for treatment at a basic rate of around $6,000 compared to $12,000-$15,000 in the United States, said the doctor.
"They're high-net worth (individuals) - they're going to eat in your restaurants, they're going to use your attractions, they're going to use your taxis, and support your tourism economy," said Skinner in her office with sea views.
Medical care remains a very small part of the Barbados tourism market but "can only be a bonus", she added.
Looking for new ways to tap into its vast diaspora in the United States, Britain and Panama, Barbados' tourism board is keen to attract those trying to track down their heritage.
Stored in a former leprosy hospital on the edge of the capital Bridgetown, some records date back to the 1600s for the island that was once a trans-shipment point for Africans brought to work as slaves in the Caribbean.
"We're trying to pull it together as a market niche, and it's coming together pretty good," said Madge Dalrymple of the Barbados Tourism Product Authority.
While turquoise seas, coral sand beaches and a balmy climate will likely remain the primary draw for the vast majority of tourists to the Caribbean, some say diversification could open new markets and bring a competitive edge.
"There's great potential for all kinds of niche tourism markets outside of sun, sea and sand," said professor Schuhmann. ($1 = 1.9981 Barbados dollars) (Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling and Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/)
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