In a recent member survey, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association found that sustainability ranks on the lower end of priorities for Caribbean stakeholders. This is true even as tourism rebounds, with issues such as worker shortages topping the list.
In Trinidad and Tobago, where accommodations are largely small and medium-sized businesses, as in the rest of the region, more hotels are seeing the value of eco-certification. But there’s work to be done on informing tourism businesses about the benefits of embracing sustainability.
“A lot of our interactions with stakeholders, it’s actually the owner that is doing everything,” shares Tenisha Brown-Williams, director of the Green Key hotel eco-certification program for Trinidad and Tobago, under the local NGO, Green T&T. “We hear it every single week: I do not have staff, this is very time consuming; I’m very interested, but I just don’t have the time.”
Trinidad and Tobago tourism industry veteran Brown-Williams holds extensive experience not just in eco-certification, but also as current tourism researcher and lecturer at the University of the West Indies St. Augustine Campus (UWI).
Her trajectory has also included a seven year stint at the Trinidad and Tobago tourism board.
She was in charge of the quality control unit there, managed the Blue Flag program and contributed to developing national tourism standards.
What hurdles do SME hotel owners in Trinidad and Tobago say they face in meeting sustainability licensing criteria? Why does sustainability still sit on the lower end of priorities for Caribbean tourism leaders? Are travelers choosing a hotel in the Caribbean based on its eco-certification?
Brown-Williams joined Tourism Lens to answer these questions, as she shares insights on her work on the Green Key certification program, on the impact of AirBnB in Trinidad and Tobago, and how she believes the Caribbean can push the needle forward on sustainability.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Eco-Certifying Hotels in Trinidad & Tobago
Lebawit Lily Girma (Tourism lens): Let’s talk about the work that you’re doing in getting hotels in Trinidad and Tobago on a sustainability path. You are the director of the Green Key program in Trinidad and Tobago. Tell us a little bit about what that means and how difficult is this process of greening tourism there?
Tenisha Brown-Wiliams: Yes, I am the director responsible for the Green Key program as part of the environmental NGO, Green T&T, and we are the national operators for Blue Flag and Green Key which is administered or owned by the Foundation for Environmental Education out of Denmark.
LLG: So there is a set criteria for these hotels to follow; how difficult has it been? Can you tell us for example — one of them is Adventure Eco Villas — about that property and what are some of the challenges that you come across?
TBW: The criteria consists of 13 categories that applicants have to meet in going through the eco-certification. The criteria are broken up into two — it’s imperative criteria and guideline criteria. So when someone applies the first time, for example, they meet all of the imperative criteria. But the beauty of Green Key is that the guideline criteria you meet incrementally over a set period.
Green Key, in other words, recognizes that sustainability is not a sprint, it’s a process. And I can go on about the beauty of that because it does not jack you up against a wall to be sustainable. It’s one of the challenges that we have in trying to convince properties to get certified or operators.
There’s this perception that the eco-label is unattainable, that it’s expensive, that it’s an onerous process, and that they have to put out, as I said, a lot of money to become certified.
LLG: I’m so glad you mentioned that. I think that’s often the case that even some of us who are in the media think the same. So can you explain how much funding does it take, or who’s funding this and how are you beating this perception and persuading hotels in joining?
TBW: We are actually or have implemented a model that came out of Puerto Rico a few years ago with the former (Trinidad & Tobago) tourism authority.
We started a co-management agreement for the implementation of Blue Flag. That’s a model that works for the Caribbean simply because if you have the backing up the tourism authority, stakeholders are a lot more open to the programs.
Additionally, a co-management agreement means that the tourism authority is funding the program. So it eliminates the applicants or the stakeholders having to put out certification fees, which as I know for other programs are quite expensive.
So this is the model that we’re actually using in Tobago at the moment. So since 2018 until 2019, we have been co-partners with the Tobago tourism agency limited for the implementation of both Blue Flag and Green Key.
At the moment Green Key is the only program that is really active and they have engaged us through a contract. So we are paid as part of that co-management agreement to approach the stakeholders and to get them on board,
LLG: Other than the misconceptions, how do you think it’s going overall? Would you like to get more properties on board? Are you facing more resistance, less resistance? How’s that going?
TBW: Great question. I want to categorize the stakeholders that we deal with.
We deal with those who are interested in sustainability matters, but lack knowledge and lack understanding. And then we deal with those that have some sort of understanding; if I were to put it on the spectrum of sustainability from light green to dark green, they are perhaps in the middle of the spectrum, And then of course, we have those who are closer to the dark green end of sustainability; their knowledge is vast.
But for the most part, the stakeholders that we’re dealing with really lies on the lower end of the spectrum. So we find in our interactions with stakeholders that we have to educate, we have to inform.
We have to also help them to not engage in greenwashing and understanding that green certification and sustainability goes beyond just changing out all of your lightbulbs to LED. So we have to combat those issues that you need to do more than the basics.
LLG: Do you think that consumers are more interested in traveling to the Caribbean more sustainably and choosing a hotel that’s perhaps Green Key certified?
TBW: So we don’t have the data to indicate that and I’m happy that you raised that because on my many hats that I wear, I’m also part of the University of the West Indies St. Augustine campus, and we are embarking on a research collaboration with FEE, the international body for Green Key, and with Green T&T to do some research on the impact of sustainability certifications in the Caribbean specifically looking at Green Key.
As part of that research we’re looking at the visitors’ willingness to want to stay at a Green Key property or any other actually — we’re gonna broaden it a bit to speak about any other sustainable certifications within the Caribbean.
LLG: Fantastic, I can’t wait to see that data. For those properties in the Caribbean that perhaps aren’t part of Green Key effort or similar licensing project that’s funded, but want to do better: What a couple of best practices where they can get started?
TBW: Can I just go back and let you know that we’re not just in Trinidad and Tobago — currently we are assisting two of the Marriott properties in our region, one in Suriname and one in Curacao.
Having said that, some of the best practices are really wrapped up in the criteria itself. So it’s important for people to understand that a sustainability certification and the criteria is not just to meet it, it is also a form a reference point, a guideline. Even if you’re not going towards the certification, you use those points to implement best practices within your operations. So I would hope that people would view sustainability certifications in that way: It’s to help you to align your operations.
One of the challenges is that the Caribbean is made up mainly of micro small and medium hospitality enterprises. They are not widely staffed. So a lot of our interactions with stakeholders is actually the owner that is doing everything.
We hear it every single week. “I do not have staff. This is very time consuming. I’m very interested, but I just don’t have the time.”
Now we are very flexible and we’re an organization that is may I say hell bent on progressing the cause. With a certification, there’s a lot of documentation required, like a policy and an action plan and SOPs. We have created a drive with templates upon templates of documents, so it saves the applicant time from having to sit down and create — they can customize these templates and it makes life a whole lot easier.
Short-Term Rentals in T&T
LLG: You are the AirBnB host community leader for Trinidad and Tobago, and you’ve also written extensively about the impact of AirBnB in Trinidad and Tobago. Tell us a little bit about what you found there and what your thoughts are on Airbnb there, knowing you’re a volunteer as well.
TBW: I’m also a host, right. I have 10 listings on the site. And I’ve been a host since 2017. So I like the fact that I’m involved on the grounds and I involved academically so I understand a bit of both worlds, right.
The research — there’s an article or chapter that was co-written by three others besides me on the impact of the Airbnb accommodation sector on the traditional accommodation sector in Trinidad and Tobago. What we found obviously, we did not look at the economic impact. So that’s an area still to be investigated, and it’s simply because of a lack of data. Airbnb is a public company so the whole idea it’s a very close to their chest. It’s not freely available.
But that piece of research indicated that stakeholders in Trinidad in a traditional accommodation sector (i.e. hotels, guest houses) are very open to the AirBnB concept simply because they understand that AirBnB serves a particular type of market.
Another significant thing we found is that business travelers tend to use more traditional accommodation, rather than Airbnb. So they were very open to the practice as opposed to some of the more developed countries.
However what they noted is the unfairness that relates to the lack of regulations so currently and I can speak also to the Caribbean, AirBnB properties do not have to register as a business. As a result of that there’s no taxation applied to AirBnB businesses. So those were two of the major issues that were raised. So lack of regulations and the lack of taxation from the AirBnB.
LLG: What I love about something that you also said recently is that short term rentals can be a great way into a sort of form of community tourism where you’re really supporting a neighborhood or homeowner helping a local save money for other purposes.
TWB: I want to share this example. I have two clients, part of a small company that I launched in 2017 called ShareHome Caribbean. One of my clients, he’s an 80 something year old man. I started working with him in 2018. He lost his wife, unfortunately to cancer. But he has a seven room house and he lives in one. He reached out to me during that time; the vision was always for his wife, and himself to have a guest house. He wanted to list on AirBnB.
I’m sharing that example because from 2018 to now, Mr. Placid has hired persons from within the community to clean, to do maintenance work. Periodically we do engage community members to provide meals and I am so blessed by the fact that this is someone who entered the hospitality sector informally and with no prior knowledge. He’s at the stage where he does his bookings, through the telephone. I still manage his bookings on Airbnb, but he gets direct bookings. He meets and greets his guests, he does his walk through, everyone loves him.
So I want to just make this last point about what you said about the elderly lady hosting you in Barbados: With AirBnB, there’s a place at the table for all ages. It’s not just for young persons to be hosts or for middle aged persons, but the elderly who are just home and need some sort of activity can benefit from it.
LLG: That’s a good point. Tourism can be discriminatory when it comes to who can be part of the industry. And I think the older folks are usually left out even older travelers are often left out.
Lack of Data Hinders Sustainability
TWB: Let’s talk about this tourism rebound that we’re seeing in the Caribbean to get close to our wrap. Up. This week, the Caribbean hotel and Tourism Association shared some amazing numbers, tourism recovery is looking very impressive, but aside from the arrivals (which to me is a faulty measure), looking at some of the top concerns that CHTA members have, at the top was labor shortage and at the sort of bottom layers is sustainability. I think that’s been the case for a long time since the pandemic, unfortunately, because of the economic priorities.
But now that everything has been coming back roaring back, I mean, some islands are even way above in 2019 levels. Why is it still at the bottom and what do you think could be done to change that? Or are we just going to continue with business as usual?
TWB: That problem sits within a wider structural, political and cultural context. We know that the Caribbean as a small island developing state region uses tourism as a main economic earner. So it’s really focused on the economic imperatives rather than anything else.
When we think sustainability, it does not equal the profits and profitability that our policymakers expect.
That’s because Lily, there is a lack of research.
We don’t have data to convince policymakers that sustainability is worth it economically. And so it really behooves institutions like the University of the West Indies and others, to initiate research agendas that will try to get the data so that we can present the dollars and cents. Politicians only mainly see in dollars and cents. That’s the reality.
LLG: You would think that it would be obvious by now given what we see around us, the world is changing. Tourism is very vulnerable, it could disappear again tomorrow, perhaps another pandemic, not even touching the climate portion of it.
TBW: I think that civil society and the role of civil society is highly underrated. Civil society groups have access to a lot of funding to implement projects.
For example, Green T&T is currently in partnership with the UNDP office in Trinidad and Tobago, and we receive funding from them to certify boat tour operators in Tobago. Currently, we have three Blue Flag boat operators, those are the operators that take visitors out on the reef. We were able to bring three of them to certification, but this was through a partnership with a funding agency.
Currently, Tobago is the only destination in the English-speaking Caribbean with Blue Flag boat operators.
So I think that there is a role for civil society that could create the impact from the ground up. It did not involve directly the tourism authority, however they have supported and they have taken notice.
If we want this change and the shift in sustainability to happen, perhaps we need to do it from the ground up, not expect it from the top down.
A Positive Impact Through Tourism
LLG: I want to wrap up with a little bit of your personal experience. How did you even get into tourism, and the sustainability aspect of it? Tell us about your path.
TWB: My interest in tourism came when I was doing A-levels or what we call the Caribbean advanced proficiency proficiency exam. I was exposed to it through my studies of geography and I automatically just latched on to the industry. I knew from then that I wanted to pursue a profession in hospitality and tourism.
As it relates to sustainable tourism, I got more exposure during my master’s program in tourism development and management. We did a course on sustainability, we had to go into communities and do projects and track the socio economic and environmental impacts of tourism. That’s why I was convinced that we can’t just do tourism in the usual traditional fashion — it has to make an impact on lives. livelihoods and the natural environment.
LLG: The part you said about you know, the importance of making a positive impact on places which is really what Tourism Lens is about, what my my career even as a travel journalist has been about, has always been harping on that message of — you can travel but you can travel in a way that makes a positive difference wherever you’re going through the choices that you’re making.
So what will be your message as someone who’s obviously very embedded in Caribbean tourism and in Trinidad and Tobago, for visitors who are heading that way? What are some of the things that you really want them to know? Today?
TWB: I really want them to know that the Caribbean is about people. What defines the Caribbean are not just beaches and the flora and fauna, but it’s the people, it’s our culture, it’s our colorfulness, it’s our vibe, it’s our food. When you come to the Caribbean, explore more than a beach, explore more than a cocktail. Experience the people because that’s the difference with the Caribbean — it’s us.
Eco-Certified T&T Hotels and Boat Tour Operators — A Handy List
Are you heading to Trinidad and Tobago and would like to support eco-certified tourism businesses? Bookmark this list, courtesy of Green T&T.
Green Key Certified
Audited and in Process
- Castara Retreats
- Tropikist Beach Hotel and Resort
- Tropical Apartments
- House of Grace Apartments
Note: More than 20 additional tourism businesses in Tobago (hotels, small accommodations, attractions) have undergone a Green Key gap assessment and are preparing for the Green Key audit.
Blue Flag Certified Tour Operators