Tobago: saving money, saving the earth

Tobago is showing hotel owners ways to cut costs – while keeping their island clean and conserving resources

  • 15-year-old Speyside High School student Aimswell Mapp displays a tilapia fingerling. Photograph by James Fuller
  • Chris James, regional director of the Travel Foundation. Photograph courtesy Dawn Glaisher
  • Students at Speyside Primary Anglican Church School tend their vegetable and herb beds. Photograph by James Fuller

“This year will be exciting because it should make the Caribbean stand out in terms of environmental awareness and sustainable tourism,” enthuses Chris James, regional director of the Travel Foundation.

James is talking, in typically fervent terms, about the next chapter in the story of the Travel Foundation, a UK-based charity that conducts global sustainable tourism projects, in the Caribbean. The story began in Tobago in 2004, but the next chapter will encompass the region.

The 2009 energy-saving project will educate hoteliers on the financial benefits of going “green” and urge them to adopt environmentally friendly working practices. It’s being launched in association with the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association. Each hotel will receive practical advice on energy and water efficiency (yielding potential cost savings of up to 25 per cent), supplemented by an instructional DVD and at-a-glance posters for key hotel departments (such as housekeeping), to ensure staff are routinely exposed to the message of environmental responsibility in the workplace.

“We want most of the islands to take up the energy-saving packs and monitor the savings which can be made – which is very important. It has to be quantifiable,” says James.

“All of these initiatives need to be measured in terms of cost and practicality. That way you have data to support a number of things, such as a reduction in the infrastructure needed (ie, we don’t need so many power stations), and also to back up the message that this is a green region.
“It’s an important marketing tool which will allow people, when choosing holidays, to assuage any ‘green guilt’ by opting for a destination such as the Caribbean.”
The work of the Travel Foundation Tobago (TFT) received a double shot in the arm in 2008, with a royal visit and an award for its figurehead. In March, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visited Tobago as part of a Caribbean tour and were shown an exhibition of the foundation’s work at the Coco Reef Resort and Spa. It was a great success.

“His Royal Highness was interested in everything we were doing and ended up staying for two hours when he had been allotted around 45 minutes,” says James. “He is very knowledgeable and committed to the environmental cause, and has already been very helpful. We will definitely be keeping him informed of our progress and maybe invite him back.”

Then, at the World Travel Market in London in November, James was highly commended in the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Award 2008 for Best Personal Contribution (a category which attracted 10,000 entrants).

“It really helps because it raises the profile of the Travel Foundation enormously and makes people take it much more seriously.”

What Prince Charles was so impressed with, and what James won his award for, was the work conducted by the TFT between 2004 and 2008. In that period, James’ small team of regional programme co-ordinator Rosemarie Thomas, regional agricultural co-ordinator Rebecca Roberts Bain and office administrator Keisha Burke created a host of economically sustainable, socially aware and environmentally friendly projects. All of them were designed to strengthen the commercial link between Tobagonians and their tourist industry.

“All the projects are self-sustaining,” says James. “The initial input costs are sponsored; we set it up and then walk away. The whole point of what we’re doing is that we want people to be self-sufficient. We’re not interested in continuously ploughing money into a project.”

One of the latest ventures is the Cherry Snapper Alternative Project, a demonstration tilapia farm established in April 2008 at Speyside High School.

“We have declining fish stocks and are experiencing more regular supply shortages so that’s not a sustainable position,” explains Roberts Bain as she shows me around the site, which overlooks Tobago’s stunning Windward coastline.

“We want to introduce an alternative fish source for hotels, because fish will always be popular with tourists. We also want locals to get accustomed to tilapia so that, over time, they will make it part of their diet as well.”

Introduced as fingerlings, the fast-growing tilapia can be harvested within four – six months at around 1lb in weight. Over 200 schoolchildren, aged 12 – 19, have already participated in the project, learning how to rear, harvest, process and re-stock the fish whilst adhering to public health standards.

“Our goal is to educate young people so they take their skills back home and establish an aquaculture project in their backyard or as a community project,” says Roberts Bain.

“Tilapia should be seen as an alternative to marine fish, food-wise, and also a viable economic option, rearing fish and supplying the hotels.”
Down the road, at the tiny Speyside Primary Anglican Church School, a 15-foot by 40-foot banked area on the hillside behind the classrooms is a sprawling vision of herbs and vegetables. The slopes, with their stone-framed beds, are home to tomatoes, cabbage, sweet pepper, celery, cauliflower, patchoi, chives, green and red basil, sage and parsley. The beds are tended, from planting to harvest, by around 50 children (aged eight – 12) as the practical aspect of their agricultural science classes.

Historically, Tobago was the bread basket of the country, but agriculture in the island has been in steady decline in recent years.

“We want to fuel the minds of the youngsters to get them back into farming,” says Roberts Bain. “Education is key, and young people need to see farming as a business opportunity, something they can make a living from. That’s what projects like this are all about.”

Headmaster Ken Webster says the longevity of his school garden project (one of six in Tobago) is assured, as it has proved a valuable source of income for the school.

“It’s the major fundraising venture that we have,” he adds.
Alongside these smaller-scale projects is a major one being undertaken by James on his own hotel development at Culloden Reef. He has given 25 acres of land to supply the new hotel and prove the viability of the TFT’s projects in one high-profile site.

“On 25 acres we want to replicate most of the programmes, and then tourists and schoolchildren can visit the site as well,” says James. “We can show people how it all works. We could have video displays, make it educational, an attraction in its own right. We could have a fish farm, honeybee colony, a unit producing luxury organic spa treatments, a café selling locally-produced chocolate products… there are so many options.

“I’m trying to prove that on the smallest piece of land possible you can actually supply a hotel. Responsible luxury, that’s the tagline. If we can do this on one hotel site, then we have a better chance of convincing other hoteliers this is the way forward. If we succeed, it helps the region.”

TFT’s success has seen the establishment of regional projects such as an energy awareness initiative in St Lucia; honeybee and school garden projects in Jamaica; and a cassava pancake project in the Dominican Republic. These though, will be dwarfed in 2009 by the pan-Caribbean hotel campaign for awareness of energy and water efficiency.

James, who was also awarded an MBE in October 2005 for services to the environment, British business interests and the community in Tobago, is bullish about the Travel Foundation’s work and what is being achieved.

“It creates ongoing employment and careers for locals, giving them a good source of income, which has knock-on benefits for the regional economy; it is environmentally-sound in that you are not bringing products in from thousands of miles away; the local projects launched are only those which protect the fragile ecosystems; and it gives tourists the opportunity to choose more ethically-motivated establishments.”

And, pragmatic businessman that he is, James believes there has never been a better time for the Travel Foundation to highlight and establish its programmes.

“It is a very exciting opportunity that we have and the time is right because of greater environmental awareness and a demand for greener holiday destinations. Because of all the negatives surrounding global warming, there is a greater emphasis on people to be environmentally responsible.

“By choosing a destination which is supporting programmes such as these, people not only get a fantastic holiday, but also the knowledge that they are supporting the local economy and environment. It makes them feel good and it’s good for the destination. Everyone wins.”


Travel Foundation Projects

Schemes both under way and projected include:

An adopt-a-farmer programme – hotels adopt a farming co-operative and purchase its produce, giving the producer a better price and the customer a guaranteed, locally-sourced product
School garden projects – children cultivating herbs and vegetables on a commercial scale to supply hotels and the local community
Bee-keeping and honey production
A vegetable seedling nursery
Reef demarcation – buoys installed under this scheme have reduced boat damage to Tobago’s reefs by an estimated 60 per cent
Turtle training – education/instruction on protecting the region’s endangered sea turtles for guides and hoteliers (estimated 20 per cent increase in hatchling numbers as a result)
Cheesemaking – using goats’ milk to produce a local feta cheese for the tourist market
Sustainable seafood harvesting – communicating with fishermen, restaurants, hotels and tourists on seafood stock sustainability;
Fish farming – establishing tilapia farms to reduce the pressure on seafood stocks
Chocolate production – an historically-significant market, T&T produces some of the finest cocoa in the world
Creative machine embroidery and quilting – 20 women trained in embroidery and quilting to help create home-based businesses
Shade house evaluation – project determining which crops grow best under controlled conditions – two operational, ten further shade houses to be erected in 2009