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The Sargassum problem requires a regional approach

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We must compliment both the St Vincent and the Grenadines Hotel and Tourism Association (SVGHTA) and its Caribbean counterpart, the CHTA, for their very positive approach to the environmental threat being posed by the voluminous amounts of sargassum seaweed being washed up on the shores of the region’s beaches these past few months.

The joint campaigns launched in terms of educating the public on the nature of this development, on possible uses of the seaweed, including culinary applications, and the need to protect the environment when trying to remove the seaweed, are certainly laudable, as is the resource guide which has been drawn up and made available.{{more}}

In spite of all this, the sargassum shows little sign of abatement and is turning up on beaches throughout the entire region, proving to be more than just an inconvenience. In particular, its potentially negative economic effects are worrying both public and private sector leaders.

This is not surprising, given the importance of tourism to the region, much of it driven by the lure of our beaches. The World Tourism Organization ranks the Caribbean as the most tourism-dependent region in the world. In 2013, the tourism industry made a direct contribution of US$15.3 billion to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the region and this is estimated to rise to US$22.3 billion by 2024.

Overall, in terms of both direct and indirect earnings, tourism brought in US$49 billion in 2013, with projections of just over US$75 billion by 2024. The Caribbean tourism industry is a major employer in the region, accounting for more than 12 per cent of total earnings by 2012. These are by no means insignificant figures, so any possible source of disruption is taken very seriously by both governments and the private sector.

The “tourism season,” the high season for extra-regional visitors, will begin in three months’ time and with the sargassum still piling up on our shores, there is good reason to be concerned about how it can possibly affect tourism.

Tobago provides an example of these concerns. There, hoteliers have already begun to note cancellations, as complaints of both the presence of the seaweed and its stench spread. This has caused hotels to have to move guests around and has affected sales from meals, among other takings. It has caused the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association (THTA) to surmise that the sargassum can pose a “huge future problem” to this vulnerable industry.

The THTA has moved to liaise with the Caribbean Tourism Organization to discuss a unified approach to what it has identified as a threat to regional tourism and to Caribbean livelihood. In this light, the Tobagonians are, quite correctly, calling for action at a regional level, urging the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to seek an emergency meeting of regional governments on the matter.

So worried is the THTA that it has labelled the threat both a “national disaster” and a “regional problem”, saying that there is “very little difference between this and an oil spill or a major hurricane” in terms of damage and potential damage.

While some may consider this characterization an exaggeration, the concern is certainly justified. Not a single country in the region has so far been able to combat the threat adequately. The economic stakes are of sufficient significance to demand the attention of a task force set up by CARICOM, so that a regional approach can be devised and implemented with the help of our regional tertiary institutions.

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