Montego Bay Declaration informs next steps for sustainable tourism for development

UNWTO Executive Director Carlos Vogeler and Jamaican Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett read the Montego Bay Declaration for Partnerships for Sustainable Tourism within the Framework of the International Year. Photo by: UNWTO

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — As the United Nation’s International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development winds to an end, delegates gathered in Jamaica to discuss what’s needed to ensure that tourism is an engine of good job creation, inclusive growth, and sustainable development.

While the past year has helped raise the profile of tourism as a tool for sustainable development, it’s an industry that hasn’t always led to the type of inclusive growth that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals demand. The U.N. World Tourism Organization’s global conference on jobs and inclusive growth in Montego Bay last week emphasized that partnerships will be key to future growth, but also discussed how the evolving industry will demand that companies and countries do things differently.

It’s an industry that accounts for about 10 percent of global gross domestic product and is growing consistently — growth that could either be an opportunity to make the world a better, more peaceful place, distribute wealth, protect natural and cultural resources, or not, said Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the U.N. World Tourism Organization.

“We have to continue to lower the walls between host communities and visitors. We cannot let visitors live in bubbles — that is not acceptable anymore,” he said. “We cannot continue to promote modern-day plantations in our own countries, called exclusive resorts.”

While exclusive or all-inclusive resorts have played an important role in tourism development in many countries — including Jamaica, which hosted the conference — it’s not a model that will speak to the future traveler and it has too often left communities behind, Rifai said. Tourism as a tool for sustainable development will require buy-in from stakeholders across the industry’s spectrum and participation from the communities it touches — and Rifai hopes to power it forward with the Montego Bay Declaration.

The declaration

The global conference in Jamaica’s tourism epicenter culminated with the presentation of the Montego Bay Declaration, a nonbinding agreement outlining a series of actions and commitments designed to help different actors achieve the goals of inclusive sustainable growth through tourism.

The declaration begins by acknowledging that tourism has a role in contributing to the SDGs, and that there is an urgent need to “mobilize and unlock a substantial increase in financing tourism development.”  

Building on themes of the week’s conversations, the declaration highlights the importance of a variety of actors — from governments at all levels, to the private sector, international organizations, academia, and local communities — partnering to achieve the SDGs through tourism.

One actionable result will be the creation of a working group to build a plan to encourage donors and corporations to invest more heavily in sustainable tourism. But all those engaged in the industry will “develop an integrated and holistic approach to tourism development in order to leverage the sector’s positive impact and multiplying effect on people, planet and prosperity, thus capitalizing on its value as a key contributor to sustainable development,” the declaration reads.

Stakeholders should build models that engage and empower communities, create “decent jobs,” and bring down barriers between communities and tourism developers, according to the document. It also touches on a need for improved data, enabling environments that incentivize inclusive and sustainable growth, the need for more donor support through both new and existing finance frameworks, and programs that help educate and build skills for youth, women, and other at-risk groups.

The declaration also highlights the need for climate change mitigation and improving crisis preparedness, including a commitment among Caribbean countries to work toward more regional integration and to support a Global Tourism Resilience Center in Jamaica, including a Sustainable Tourism Observatory to help in preparedness, management, and recovery from crises.

While the declaration may provide broad brush strokes of some of the key issues moving forward, it shouldn’t be considered a roadmap or action plan, Rifai said. It is intended to be a set of principles and references that different actors can take on and develop into individual action plans.

The way forward

More money, better policies, and new partnerships are required moving forward — and governments, the private sector, and donors all have specific roles to play.

Less than 1 percent of financing from multilateral financial institutions go to tourism, and there need to be more opportunities for financing, including for small and medium tourist enterprises, Jamaica’s Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett told the audience at the conference. He called for a “rebalancing” of that spending.

While historically multilateral development banks have not invested heavily in tourism, both the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank told Devex they are looking to increase their investments in tourism. The World Bank has already supported some programs that empower local communities to develop tourist opportunities or improve their agricultural goods and link them to markets so that they can supply the local tourism industry.

Those approaches of finding linkages from tourism to other industries is important for local communities to benefit, but it may also require government incentives or partnerships to bring the private sector to the table or get them to more often work with or source from local companies.

Tourism can be complex, which is in part why governments have been turning to the World Bank to ask for help in crafting policies, identifying their competitive advantage, detecting barriers, and developing effective policies and plans, John Perrottet, a senior tourism specialist at the World Bank, told Devex.

What’s needed, he said, is a recognition that there is a data gap that is hindering growth and planning, and that governments need to more effectively coordinate tourism development to make it work for everyone — including women.

Tourism is one of the few sectors where there is gender parity in employment, but future inclusive growth will require women moving up the chain to be decision-makers and leaders, said Louise Twining-Ward, a World Bank senior private sector specialist in tourism. To that end, the bank is looking at how the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, or We-Fi, which is a new facility to fund women entrepreneurs in developing countries, can be used to help support women in the tourism industry.

Some of the necessary shifts will also be driven by the changing demands of travelers, who are increasingly looking for more authentic travel experiences: “We can’t build 5-star hotels in 3-star communities,” Rifai said, adding that communities must benefit from and be engaged in tourism.

Airbnb released several partnership case studies, where they are working in developing countries to help local people post on the platform and become hosts. But it’s likely these initiatives or similar will require a push from governments to achieve inclusive growth.

Resorts could move away from all-inclusive models slowly by giving guests vouchers to eat at local restaurants or go to local communities to see performances, rather than staying within the boundaries of the resort, suggested Rifai. Governments can also incentivize companies, through policies such as tax breaks, to buy products locally, particularly from surrounding communities.

Factoring in climate change

Considering many tourism-dependent locations are often also at great risk for the impacts of hurricanes, future work must also focus on resilience and long-term planning to preserve the environment, said Cecile Niang, World Bank program leader for Caribbean countries.

It was clear that the devastation caused by this hurricane season was fresh in the minds of many at the gathering. Building more sustainable models for tourism, installing more renewable energy capacity, and creating better systems for recovering from disasters, including how to communicate post-disaster, are all on the agenda.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation, in fact, should be the top priority, said Geoffrey Lipman, the co-founder of the SUNx, Strong Universal Network program, a climate resilience system for tourism destinations that is managed by the Green Growth & Travelism Institute. Measuring climate impacts is critical and must inform planning processes, which may mean that future infrastructure or property development shouldn’t happen right on the water where they are most vulnerable to storm surges, he said.

Protecting the environment doesn’t need to mean stalling growth, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Michael Holness told the conference, adding that tourism play a role in educating local communities who can help in the process of preserving the environment.

“Tourism-dependent countries must critically consider how tourism products should adapt and evolve to new realities like climate change and evolving tourist interests,” he said. In Jamaica, he is working on improving tourism infrastructure, but also making life better for citizens, who will help create the authentic experiences that visitors want, Holness said

“Tourism can move nations from poverty to prosperity,” he said. “Tourism must ensure inclusive growth where everyone participates in the growth process and benefits equally in growth. It must have an impact and make communities better places, and by extension, greater nations.”

Editor’s note: The Jamaica Tourist Board facilitated Devex's travel and logistics for this reporting. However, Devex maintains full editorial control of the content.

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    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.