A Strong Comeback

Can South Caicos become the ecotourism capital of the TCI?

By Don Stark, Chairman, Turks & Caicos Reef Fund and Kathleen McNary Wood, Principal, SWA Environmental
Photos By Kathleen McNary Wood

According to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), South Caicos was the second-hardest-hit island in the Turks & Caicos by the September 2017, back-to-back hurricanes (Irma and Maria). The poverty level on South Caicos is already high, hovering around 40% (CDB, 2014), and the primary industry, fishing, is being adversely affected by over-fishing, habitat destruction and climate change. Consequently, livelihoods of people living on South Caicos were already difficult, and the devastation caused by the storms only added to their problems.

Fortunately, with two new resorts—Sailrock and the East Bay Resort—recently opening, the tourism industry is heating up on South Caicos. “It is our hope,” says Chairman of the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF) Don Stark, “that by helping people establish small businesses around ecotourism, the people of South Caicos can avoid some of the development mistakes that have been made on Providenciales. An increasing number of tourists offers the perfect opportunity to develop a tourism model that will help raise the well-being of all people on South Caicos, not just foreign investors.”

From top: Reddish egret is internationally considered Near Threatened, but the species thrives at East Caicos.

“South Caicos is in an ideal location,” observes Kathleen Wood of SWA Environmental. “The island is surrounded on all sides by undeveloped landscapes of high ecological value, providing a perfect backdrop for the development of Belonger-owned, small ecotourism businesses.” In particular, nearby East Caicos provides significant opportunities for ecotourism. Ongoing research on that island and surrounding areas, by SWA Environmental and TCRF, has uncovered ecological assets that are unparalleled in the region. Ten plants, believed to be found only in the Turks & Caicos Islands (“endemic”), have been observed there, in addition to several other plant species endemic to TCI and the Bahamas. East Caicos also provides habitat for endemic birds (thick-billed vireo, Antillean bullfinch, Bahama woodstar hummingbird, Bahama mockingbird and Cuban crow), reptiles and insects and is an important breeding ground for these rare animals.

A small clump of mangroves between South and East Caicos serves as a nesting and roosting site for magnificent frigate birds.

In addition to the rich diversity of endemic organisms, East Caicos is a critical habitat for other breeding, migratory and globally threatened birds, including reddish egret, brown pelican, least tern, piping plover, West Indian whistling duck and numerous others. East Caicos beaches are recognized as important nesting areas for Critically Endangered hawksbill and Endangered green sea turtles. Offshore, East Caicos coral reefs are some of the healthiest in the Caribbean, with live coral averages approaching 28% and some areas where live cover exceeds 50%.
“The current lack of development on East Caicos has allowed it to maintain some of the most important ecological values in the Caribbean,” comments Stark. “In fact, the exceptional ecosystem services and biodiversity values have resulted in the European Union recognizing East Caicos as a Key Biodiversity Area. Such a designation should be a source of great pride for the people of TCI.”
“We want to ensure that East Caicos’ exceptional natural heritage is preserved not only for the people of today, but for future generations of Turks & Caicos Islanders,” says Wood. “In order to do that, we need to make sure that any development on that island is approached sensitively and with the welfare of both the environment and people in mind. Development Provo-style at East Caicos would be an ecological disaster, but it would also rob the people of the surrounding islands of opportunities to make a better living for themselves.”

Lucayan dog fennel is a Lucayan Archipelago endemic, with its range restricted to the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos Islands.

With this in mind, TCRF and SWA Environmental recently applied for and were awarded a grant from the Sustainable Tourism Asset Management Program (STAMP) which is part of Cornell University’s (Ithaca, NY, USA) SC Johnson School of Business. (TCRF’s mission is to help preserve and protect the environment of the TCI by focusing on research, education and advocacy. SWA Environmental is a TCI-based company specializing in sustainable environmental management through scientific research, environmental impact assessment, environmental policy development and support for environmentally appropriate and sensitive development projects.)
STAMP was started to support development of applied research and outreach activities that will increase collective knowledge and understanding of how to more effectively manage tourism destination assets over time in the face of endemic poverty, ecosystem degradation and climate change. STAMP provides grant funding for novel and interesting sustainable tourism research projects. TCRF and SWA Environmental realized that the needs of the people of South Caicos and the natural and cultural assets of South and East Caicos were a perfect match for the STAMP program.
The project funded by the grant has the objective of assessing the interest, skills, enthusiasm and needs of fisherfolk and other South Caicos residents to develop viable plans for ecotourism businesses on and around South and East Caicos.
Tourism is the largest and fastest growing industry in TCI, but where tourism has taken place, the environment and cultural assets are degrading. In spite of TCI’s tourism boom, South Caicos has not significantly benefitted; however, because of this, the environment and cultural assets remain relatively unspoiled. With the opening of the new hotels on South Caicos, there is an opportunity to get tourism right. Ecotourism is the opportunity to help people and protect the environment.

Bahama boxwood is a West Indian endemic with a range in the Lucayan Archipelago, Cuba and Jamaica.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education.” Ecotourism provides a long-term solution to protect the natural and cultural resources around South Caicos and East Caicos. By providing sustainable jobs and business opportunities, ecotourism empowers people rather than “commodifying” them. The education and awareness aspects of ecotourism help to protect natural and cultural assets, while simultaneously providing a broader distribution of economic benefits, as compared with typical developments, where the greatest economic benefits often go to foreign investors.
Ecotourism business opportunities include birdwatching tours, kayaking trips, eco-lodges, in-home stays, traditional cuisine, cultural tours and potentially any other activities that are respectful of the local culture, heritage and environment. By providing positive growth experiences for both visitors and hosts, ecotourism empowers people to be the masters of their own destinies, while at the same time encouraging visitors to make positive changes at home. The defining feature of ecotourism is that it leaves people and places better than they existed prior its introduction.
The STAMP project, “Assessing the Viability of Alternative and Improved Livelihoods in Sustainable Tourism at the East Caicos Key Biodiversity Area,” was awarded in mid-2017, but the start of the project was delayed due to the two September 2017 hurricanes. The project plan includes a preliminary workshop to obtain stakeholder input on:
• How the natural assets of South and East Caicos are currently used;
• How such use can be sustainably maximized;
• What it would take to expand current activities for ecotourism;
• Beliefs about the viability of ecotourism business opportunities and
• Level of interest in becoming part of an ecotourism economy.
The project plan also includes field studies conducted at key sites identified by stakeholders at the preliminary workshop. The field studies will use a multi-criteria evaluation to assess the potential environmental concerns associated with ecotourism activities at each site. Following the field studies, a second workshop will be held on South Caicos to review results with stakeholders and to secure feedback on the practical implementation of feasible ecotourism packages on East Caicos and around South Caicos. At the end of the project, up to five preliminary business plans for ecotourism businesses will be prepared. TCRF and SWA Environmental are also committed to providing assistance in helping people get their ecotourism businesses off the ground.

Participants at the first STAMP workshop on South Caicos expressed a high level of interest in protecting the island’s unique assets.

The preliminary workshop was held on February 6, 2018 on South Caicos and 49 people attended. The project objective and the rationale for a focus on East Caicos were discussed, including a review of the natural and cultural assets that are found there. After the formal presentations, attendees were divided into breakout groups to answer questions. It was clear that there are many natural and cultural assets on East Caicos and around South Caicos that would be ideal for ecotourism businesses. Expressed was a high level of interest in protecting those assets, so they can continue to be used and shared in the future.
Attendees identified challenges to starting ecotourism businesses, such as complying with government regulations, preparing business plans, securing financing and identifying the right people for the job, but all were optimistic that these obstacles can be overcome. “We are encouraged by the level of support for this project so far,” commented Don Stark after the workshop had concluded. “The level of participation and enthusiasm is really unprecedented, and we look forward to helping to make South Caicos the ecotourism capital of the Turks & Caicos Islands.”

Sources cited
CDB. (2014). Turks and Caicos Islands Country Poverty Assessment. Retrieved from https://www.caribank.org/uploads/2014/09/TCI_CPA-2012-Executive-Summary.pdf

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