The Caribbean tourism product has largely focused on sun, sea and sand, and earnings from it usually remain concentrated among the same players. Jamaica is leading the way in diversifying its tourism product to bring more equitable gains to the wider economy.

One of the most common complaints about the tourism industry is that it does not spread the wealth it creates into rural and urban communities. This is particularly true in larger Caribbean countries where thousands are engaged in agriculture, opportunities are limited, and urban drift has resulted in poverty and criminality.

The criticism is that despite tourism accounting for 14.6% of the Caribbean’s GDP in 2014, and the industry directly and indirectly employing around 15% of the region’s workforce, its impact on development is not universal.

The reasons for this are largely related to the manner in which tourism developed.

Based on sun, sea, and sand, and a narrow perspective on the part of most early hotel and resort developers, the Caribbean created a product that, for the most part, is largely contained and unchallenging. That is to say that it does little to offer what many visitors now require: authenticity and experience. It has resulted in most governments until very recently, promoting a product that is largely one-dimensional and only differentiated by price.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with the beach-facing model — for which there will always be a significant market — it has had the effect of limiting the much wider potential developmental benefits that the industry could create.

Put more directly, not enough has been done to involve those in non-coastal locations and other sectors, particularly agriculture, in ways that could make the industry truly transformative by creating an opportunity for those who live in cities and inland.

Thankfully, there are indications that this is now changing, particularly in Jamaica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, in ways that are likely to significantly broaden the region’s tourism offering and hopefully, see the industry’s benefits spread more widely.

Speaking about this recently, Jamaica’s Tourism Minister, Edmund Bartlett, told me that his government, working with the private sector, is hoping to significantly diversify the country’s tourism offering where economically viable

We are trying to bring the wealth of tourism into the communities that are in rural areas like the Blue Mountains and our cities, starting with Kingston. The concept is a low-density, low-impact, soft tourism which drives a different type of demographic. It will bring a mixture of nature and creativity with additional efforts on our part to include some hard infrastructure to enable access Edmund Bartlett

His aim, for example, is to encourage higher spending, more adventurous millennials and baby boomers — who lead new trends in tourism — to visit and experience what Kingston and its surrounding parishes have, by offering authentically Jamaican music, parties, carnival, rural and urban experiences, cuisine, culture, heritage and history.

Rafts on the Martha Brae, Trelawny, Jamaica (Georgia Popplewell)

Others engaged in developing the sustainable parts of the Jamaican product speak emphatically about the opportunities for local communities to prosper from tourism, and the creation of long-term linkages with agriculture and culture. It is an approach intended to localise the benefits, promote broader participation and training, and link individual travellers to alternative experiences in real time, in non-resort areas.

Nicola Madden-Greig, who chairs Jamaica’s gastronomy tourism network, cites the Jamaican Blue Mountain Culinary Trail as an example of this approach. The objective, in a loosely-organised way, is for visitors to have culinary experiences, hike mountain trails, stay in B&Bs, and see and experience the country in a different way.

In developing the trail, and more generally rural tourism, the aim is to preserve the integrity and uniqueness of both, for travellers and residents.

While we want to see increases in the numbers of locals and visitors, by no way are we seeking to push millions of tourists into this area. Currently, the trail receives the majority of its business from the so-called weekend warriors; typically locals with visiting family and friends. But the objective now is to increase visits during the week from international travellers, giving business owners a more steady revenue stream. Nicola Madden-Greig

It also offers, she says, the opportunity to increase intra-regional tourism, and to encourage Jamaica and the country’s large diaspora to experience their own island in a different way.

It is notable that this is happening as other private initiatives are underway that aim to make Kingston one of the world’s must-visit, cool capitals for young people. As a number of downtown developments transform the waterfront area of Kingston, a number of entrepreneurs are opening up quite new and different possibilities for very different forms of short-stay, city-centre tourism.

All this is leading Jamaica’s Tourism Minister to frame tourism’s future role as being that of a catalyst for job creation, and for inclusive and sustainable growth.

Speaking about plans for the industry in a sectoral debate in the country’s Parliament on April 4, he said that the main goal behind Jamaica’s new approach is to ensure that the country’s tourism product not only generates prosperity for large hotel owners, but stimulates economic growth in the wider domestic economy in ways that preserve the country’s natural and cultural resource.

This is a message that is replicable elsewhere in the region, and likely to be the central issue when the country hosts the UN’s Global Conference on Partnerships for Jobs and Inclusive Growth through Sustainable Tourism in Montego Bay in late November.

Then, Caribbean governments will have the opportunity to consider, in a multilateral setting, how the broader tourism model now being developed by Jamaica and in other Caribbean nations has global relevance. If it can be demonstrated that tourism can be used to create benefits for all, the opportunity could emerge for the region to make the sustainable development of tourism a future UN global objective.

— Cover image: Mount Edge Guest House, Jamaica’s Blue Mountains (Kent MacElwee)

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David Jessop, Expert Contributor

David Jessop is the Executive Director of the Caribbean Council. In a forty-year career, he has provided high level support and advice to industries, associations, governments and companies on investment, trade policy and political issues in the Caribbean, the UK and continental Europe