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Developing agro-tourism in the Caribbean

The Caribbean has sun, sea, exotic flora and fauna and wonderful vibrant cultures, but is that enough to sustain a notoriously fickle tourism industry and how does this, in turn, affect agricultural activities within the region? With tourist arrivals increasing every year, more than half a million people are employed and billions of dollars earned from tourism, but the growth of tourism brings with it both benefits and concerns. Today's tourists are generally more eager to learn about the social, environmental and political issues of their host country whilst also enjoying the more conventional aspects, such as the climate and food. The trend for more adventurous activities is leading to the current growth in ecotourism but the question raised at a recent conference held in Tobago, was: can agro-tourism be exploited in a similar way?

During the workshop sessions held by the Tobago House of Assembly and collaborating organizations* in April 2000, it became evident that not all the participants who came from throughout the region, and as far afield as New Zealand, perceived 'agro-tourism' in the same way. Agro-tourism project, TobagoAgro-tourism projects are those that take the tourist to see and to be involved with agricultural activities such as touring the coffee estates of Costa Rica. But, in the small island economies of the Caribbean, it is impossible to discuss agriculture and tourism without also ensuring that agriculture meets the needs of the hospitality industry particularly in the supply of locally-produced, rather than imported, food.

Case studies and experiences of entrepreneurs were shared, but the message being conveyed by presenters with hands-on experience, such as Trevor Craig and Jesma McFarlane who both run small agricultural businesses in Tobago, was that the agricultural part of the agro-tourism partnership is disadvantaged. Agriculture usually receives fewer fiscal incentives, such as tax breaks and customs and excise concessions, than tourism. Although both sectors suffer risks, small agricultural entrepreneurs are more vulnerable since they are not, for instance, able to dictate prices.

Presentations also focused on the place of women and youth in agro-tourism and emphasized the need for agro-tourism projects to be community-based to ensure local participation in, and benefit from, these initiatives. Existing examples from the Caribbean included: the eco/agro-tourism projects of the Scotland District of Barbados; community tourism in Jamaica where visitors stay in Jamaican homes; a Dominican hotel project where visitors are encouraged to help plant a crop, giving an incentive to return to reap it; and the Heritage Tourism Programme of St. Lucia designed for small tour operators.

Many of the environmental considerations discussed at the conference relate, as elsewhere, to areas of intersectorial competition for resources particularly water, land and marine resources. Which sector should get better access to limited water supplies? Should hotels and other infrastructure be constructed on prime agricultural land? Should water sports and yachting be allowed to affect fisheries activities and marine conservation? It is essential that both sectors be effectively managed to avoid degradation or even destruction of the beautiful natural environment that attracts visitors to the region and is the Caribbean citizens' valuable heritage. Environmental impact assessments, cost benefit analyses and carrying capacity studies are required as well as constant monitoring for potentially negative impacts.

At a regional policy level, Dr. Basil Springer of SCL Systems International Ltd., a Barbados company providing business development services, identified tourism as having the potential to be the leading economic engine in the Caribbean with long stay visitors and cruise ships, in particular, offering underexploited opportunities. It was also recognised that national policies have to be developed to address issues such as legislation and incentives. Professor Clive Thomas, Director of the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Guyana, said in his evaluation of the conference that 'the ground could be taken away from us' unless we urgently ensure that standards, certification and any other requirements meet the stringent demands of modern international trade. He suggested that political will would drive the next steps in agro-tourism development and that a lobby group with representation of interests from the grass roots as well as from technical and policy levels should be formed to ensure progress.

*The Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Marine Resources of Trinidad,
The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA)
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO))

Article and photograph submitted by Pamela Collins, freelance journalist, Trinidad & Tobago

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