People must have a say

The White Paper on the development of tourism in Barbados is premised upon the fundamental principles of sustainable (tourism) development which briefly state that tourism must be conducted in such a way that it is does not entirely and irrevocably compromise the environment, society and economy. Very central to the concept of sustainable tourism is that people must have a stake in the decision-making that affects their lives, as they are the ones that will bear the costs and enjoy the benefits of development.

The very foundation of the White Paper was built upon this ideological belief through “a rigorous and comprehensive process of industry and community consultation”. (p.xii). The reason for this approach was that “the Government fully understands that for tourism to be truly sustainable, it must put the Barbadian people at the epicenter of the industry’s development”. (p.xii-emphasis not mine). One of the major policy statements of the White Paper which was endorsed by the Government of Barbados focuses on the role of participation and collaboration which will seek to “encourage a multi-sectoral response to issues pertaining to sustainable tourism development in the areas of climate change, environmental conservation, clean energy . . .”. (p.216).

The White Paper was passed by the Cabinet of Barbados, which strongly suggests that the Government has, in principle, endorsed community participation as an important vehicle through which sustainable tourism development can be achieved.

Why then is there a tacit resistance to garnering residents’ views on the proposed Hyatt development? These are the residents in whom the current and previous governments have invested billions of dollars in their education, where they are often encouraged to think critically about their development priorities – now and in the future. It is these very residents that are heralding a call for engagement and discourse. A reading of their views suggests that they have concerns around waste management, beach access, water resources, congestion, overcrowding, erosion, the resonance of the Hyatt’s architectural vernacular and so on. These concerns should not be taken lightly or, indeed, ignored.

Students at the University of the West Indies (UWI) also conducted exploratory research among urban dwellers, taxi drivers, commercial providers and beach users on the potential impacts of the proposed Hyatt and found that there is considerable goodwill for the development in terms of its potential for employment, entrepreneurial opportunities, sectoral linkages and even environmental conservation. All of these views must be afforded a formal forum where there is transparency of information and where ideas are discussed, taken on board, answered respectfully, and fed into any revisions of the project. This is the type of tourism development that the White Paper promised.

Contemporary Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) now include public participation or social impact studies in development projects. If indeed an extensive EIA was done for this proposed project, why did it not include public participation? Many external funding agencies like the World Bank, IADB and EU have built into their funding criteria public consultations, as their experience and societal evolutions highlight the benefits of engaging local communities in large-scale projects. Such benefits include a modified and improved design, the enhancement of social benefits, the identification of impacts and pursuant mitigation strategies, the avoidance of serious and irreversible damage to the environment and the protection of human health and safety.

In small islands with limited land space, comprehensive EIAs should therefore be an imperative, even if not a legal requirement. Failure to engage our publics in development can in the short and long term lead to insidious resistance against tourism and tourists. The onward march of climate change effects makes the imperative even graver and greater. Sustainable (tourism) development is no longer merely a concept but the reality of many islands as shown by the disappearance of islands in the Maldives, Polynesia and Alaska.

Like crime that has crept upon us, climate change effects have the power to diminish our tourism product and compromise livelihoods. Barbados has signed unto the Platform for action in the recently concluded Samoa conference on small island developing states which agreed on 18 priority areas where action is needed. The understanding of the signatories is that, as islands, while we have unqualified strengths we also have inherent weaknesses that must be addressed through collaboration and partnership so that the best product and project solution emerges.

The current economic climate creates urgency around the commencement of the Hyatt project. Most people understand that. But the Government’s practical position is again being tested and must be reconciled with its ideological position. Tourism offers many benefits, but it is also voracious in its use of resources and affects people where they live. The people are therefore asking to be engaged in the proposed Hyatt conversation, not in a window dressing or tokenistic fashion but through a process of genuine and transparent information sharing and decision-making.

 (Sherma Roberts, PhD is a Lecturer in Tourism and her research focuses on sustainable tourism in islands)

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