Central Caribbean Marine Institute The business of conservation tourism

The Caribbean is the most economically dependent region on tourism in the world and therefore the role that fauna, flora and culture play in this region’s economic stability and growth is significant. The Caribbean is well known for its beaches, crystal clear waters and tropical life; hence tourism is inextricably linked to sustainability within this region, and is becoming an increasing pressure on the tourism development agenda.

Conservation tourism (often called ecotourism, new tourism or green tourism) is therefore an opportunity to combine good conservation practice with the business of tourism. Opening conservation sites or tours to the public can help support the operational costs of (often non-profit) conservation efforts, providing much needed funds. There are many private and non-profit entities that focus on offering conservation-based excursions that provide informative, local tours, helping the tourist engage with that particular environment or culture.

Is conservation based tourism a good thing?

In principle, yes. Conservation tourism is a sustainable way forward, ensuring the roles of environment and culture are entwined within tourism development and hopefully, therefore, protected as a viable economic entity. When planned and managed properly, this type of tourism should be the only option and many tourists are becoming more conscientious in their holiday choices. The recent law in the Cayman Islands to protect stingrays, a valuable economic entity here, is a clear case of tourism requirements supporting conservation efforts.

However, combining business (which generally has an emphasis on profit) and conservation can be problematic, especially if there is a requirement to satisfy shareholders expecting a financial return on their investment. Costa Rica was one of the first countries in the Caribbean to develop an ecotourism product. The success of their ecotourism efforts has in fact caused people to question the ‘eco’ element. Busy rainforest trails and increased visitors to the region have damaged their environment, the product at the heart of their offer.

The question is, who decides when the balance is tipped and conservation efforts turn into environmental or cultural degradation?

To deliver a truly sustainable tourism product requires a code of ethics that all stakeholders buy into, from the top down. To have the foresight to cap tourism development to protect the natural resources (including the local heritage!), takes planning and commitment to the ideal. Arguably there are very few places in the world that have got this right and the answers are not straightforward. Essentially though, sustainable tourism development is absolutely necessary to protect the economy and the resources at the heart of that ‘product’.

In an ideal world, conservation would be the norm and business would not be the best way to help encourage it. However, given the historical damage industrial development has had on the world, particularly the environment, a closer relationship between business and conservation seems a sensible way forward. The Cayman Islands is lucky to have some fantastic tourism offers that are low impact and the protection of Cayman’s natural resource at their heart, that are well worth a visit and support local conservation efforts.

There is always the option to snorkel in one of the most bio-diverse regions in the Caribbean, right on our doorstep, just don’t touch anything! If you find yourself in Little Cayman, be sure to visit the Little Cayman Research Centre to get the full scoop on all the research and conservation projects it has going on. 

Cayman Islands ecotourism tours

  • Cayman Kayaks Bioluminescence Tour
  • Sea Elements Mangrove Eco Tours
  • The National Trust’s Mastic trail and Reserve
  • The Blue Iguana Recovery Programme
  • Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park