Building cross-sector collaboration to manage sustainable tourism growth in a small island destination
Mountain sides blanketed in sprawling rainforests, sandy beaches that meld into the waters of the Caribbean Sea, and skies illuminated by mesmerizing sunsets. These are just a few of the natural splendors that increasingly attract visitors to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts.
Since 2005, when the government-owned sugar plantations shut down due to declining prices, tourism became the top economic driver in St. Kitts. Since then, the sector has grown at a dramatic rate. While this growth in tourism represents a significant economic opportunity for local communities, without properly implemented sustainable tourism practices, the resulting environmental and cultural consequences can overshadow the benefits.
As a small island destination, St. Kitts is highly susceptible to a number of environmental threats resulting from unmanaged tourism growth. Water shortage is a prominent issue due to the perceived ample supply of water and the resulting lack of conservation efforts. Coral reefs and ocean habitats risk destruction due to the dependence of tourism and community livelihoods on the marine environment. There is a need for coastal and marine conservation to address factors such as overfishing, pollution, and coastal development. The increasing amount of litter on beaches and in the water also presents a threat to marine life, such as the endangered hawksbill turtles that nest on St. Kitts’ beaches every year, as well as the local economy that relies on fresh seafood.
In addition to its natural treasures, St. Kitts possesses another valuable asset – a rich culture and heritage influenced by the diverse backgrounds of the island’s residents and rooted in St. Kitts’ European colonial past and historical role within the African slave trade. From Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park to the traditional architecture of Basseterre and crumbling sugar mill chimneys that dot the island’s landscape, there is a plethora of significant heritage and cultural sites that must be protected.
What We’re Doing
Sustainable Travel International began partnering with the St. Kitts Ministry of Tourism in 2012 to assess the destination’s sustainability performance through the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Early Adopters Program. This launched a focused, strategic effort by the Ministry to reorient the sector along sustainability principles. Since that time, Sustainable Travel International has assisted and accompanied St. Kitts on its sustainability journey as it has diligently worked to strengthen destination management, increase community engagement, and facilitate stewardship of the island’s natural and cultural resources.
Just some of the initiatives and achievements resulting from these efforts include:
Collaborative Destination Management
In 2013, St. Kitts established the Sustainable Destination Council (SDC), formerly called the Inter-Agency Sustainable Destination Management Council. The council is a cross-sector body of destination leaders focused on advancing the sustainable development of tourism in St. Kitts. Council members include representatives from tourism companies, environmental and heritage NGOs, government departments, and community groups, among others. The council aims to ensure tourism development preserves and benefits the environment, culture, heritage, and community livelihoods. To ensure council effectiveness, Sustainable Travel International provided sustainable destination management training to council members and other key stakeholders. Over the years, the council has implemented campaigns to raise awareness around water conservation, plastics reduction, bee conservation, and other key issues. We continue to support the council in advancing multi-stakeholder dialogue and sustainability initiatives on-island, most recently facilitating an action planning workshop which led to the definition of four sustainability projects.
We also supported St. Kitts in organizing the Sustainable Tourism and Climate Smart Tourism forums which brought together local, regional, and international representatives to share best practices aimed at strengthening holistic destination management approaches in the Caribbean.
Stakeholder Training & Capacity-Building
Sustainable Travel International has developed and implemented a number of training programs for various stakeholders in St. Kitts, including the Sustainable Tourism Professionals, Destination Guardians, and Sustainable Tourism Enterprise training programs, as well as various train the trainer modalities. These programs have collectively trained over 160 stakeholders in destination stewardship and sustainable business operations. We also supported St. Kitts in defining the approach for their “I Speak” training program which aims to empower local tourism professionals to act as ambassadors who spread awareness of St. Kitts’ unique tourism experiences and product. The first workshop in this series, “I Speak St. Kitts Culture & Heritage” immersed participants in different aspects of the local heritage from historic sites and architecture to traditional food, dances, and games.
Best Practices for Local Tourism Industry
To complement other capacity building efforts, in 2016, Sustainable Travel International launched the Heart of St. Kitts Sustainability Charter to engage local tourism enterprises in sustainable practices. The Charter itself outlines concrete actions that businesses can take related to key areas of sustainability, such as waste management and community development. A revitalized Sustainability Charter program was launched in 2021 to promote a responsible recovery of tourism following the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with a revised framework of best practices, the new program offers more robust benefits and resources for participating businesses that will help them take sustainability action and tell their story.
Sustainable Financing Mechanism
In 2016, Sustainable Travel International supported the launch of the Heart of St. Kitts Foundation, a program that channels tourism funding to small-scale initiatives that make St. Kitts a better and more sustainable place to live and experience. The Foundation’s projects focus on developing community-driven tourism products; conserving marine and coastal habitats; improving waste management; and preserving local culture and heritage sites. Projects have included converting the old sugar railway into a hiking and biking trail, restoring the island’s only remaining cotton ginnery, and organizing beach clean-ups.
In 2017, Sustainable Travel International designed and conducted a destination-wide survey to determine resident perceptions of the tourism industry and involve citizens in tourism governance. We implemented a follow-on survey in 2021 to understand how resident sentiments and priorities have changed, and to gauge the effectiveness of recent interventions. Based on the findings, the Ministry of Tourism is working with residents to address any gaps and encourage tourism that is beneficial for all.