Tourism and Sustainability: Threats, Risks, Opportunities and Challenges

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present at the World Bank and United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Conference on Jobs and Inclusive Growth: Partnerships for Sustainable Tourism. My session was entitled “Tourism and Sustainability: Threats, Risks, Opportunities and Challenges.” Here are my notes from the talk.

Good morning.

I am here today to share the unique story behind the development of the Punta Cana region in the eastern Dominican Republic and specifically, the role our company, Grupo Puntacana, played in making it happen.

When thinking about this session, I think the Punta Cana region encapsulates some of the risks that tourism in the Caribbean faces, and some of the unique opportunities we have to confront them.

In Puntacana, one of the biggest threats we face is the environmental and social cost of our success. What do I mean by this?

Tourism began in the Punta Cana region, and in many ways, for the Dominican Republic as a whole, in 1969, when a group of investors purchased a large swatch of land on the eastern end of the island. There were no roads, no hotels, few scattered villages, and certainly no tourists.

Our company, Grupo Puntacana, did something pretty unique at the time. We got permission to build, own and operate a private, international airport. The first of its kind.

And when we did that, we began to attract hotels to the region. And new business. And more flights. And droves of people looking for work and opportunities. And Punta Cana began to grow.

Fast forward to today. Punta Cana now has close to 50,000 hotel rooms. Our private airport receives 3.6 million arriving passengers a year. Tourism drives the economy of the Dominican Republic and the Punta Cana region has become one of the most successful tourism destinations in the world.

And all of this was done by the private sector, with almost no support from the Dominican government. The private sector runs the airport, has built or paid for most of the roads, provides electricity and water, water treatment and even security.

Development driven exclusively by the private sector, unencumbered by government intervention, has a lot advantages.

Businesses innovate, act efficiently and compete. They drive growth. The Punta Cana region has grown at a double-digit percentage rate since 2009.

The region created tens of thousands of jobs and immense economic opportunity. In many ways, Punta Cana is the envy of many Caribbean countries.

But our success is one of our greatest threats.

The lack of public sector involvement means the growth of the destination has had little planning. And even less investment in public infrastructure.

In our region, there is no drinking water system for the local communities surrounding the hotels. The hotels have water treatments facilities, but the 50-70,000 people in the community of Veron don’t. The management of solid waste is precarious and there is no environmentally safe option for landfilling. Little government oversight has meant that compliance of environmental laws by the tourism industry has been largely voluntary.

And every day, the threat of climate change is more real, especially to coastal tourism operations like ours.

But there is good news. And here is our greatest opportunity. The private sector has the potential to be a profound source of positive impact, both for local communities and the environment. And it can be good for their business at the same.

The most important success of Grupo Puntacana is to demonstrate the tremendous power of the companies to produce positive impact.

We have built schools that provide education for local kids. We operate two health clinics that provide primary and pediatric care for thousands of local patients a month.

We have designed one of the largest and most successful waste management systems in the country, effectively diverting close to 60% of the waste we produce from the local dump, to sell as recyclables or compost. And now many of the hotels in our region are doing the same.

We have implemented a large-scale coral reef restoration program that has transplanted close to ten kilometers of endangered coral tissue on to the reef and become a training center for training for countries throughout the Caribbean.

We have successfully integrated local fishermen and their families into the tourism sector, creating viable alternative livelihoods that reduce overfishing.

We have designated a large tract of our property as a private ecological reserve.

We worked to protect endangered species, like the Ridgway’s hawk, using our resort as a protected habitat.

We have literally dozens of permanent projects and millions of dollars of investment in social and environmental programs.

Most importantly, we have begun to use the experiences within our resort and our company, to convince other hotels, business and even the Dominican government, to invest in the environmental challenges our region faces.

Grupo Puntacana has been doing this work since its inception almost 50 years ago. And we have only expanded our investment in social and environmental challenges since we started. And believe it or not, it has produced as much positive impact to our bottom line, as it has to the region.

Grupo Puntacana is not only committed to continue our work, and to expand our efforts, but to try to use events, like this conference, to share our experiences, both the successes and the failures, to engage other companies and countries, to realize the vast potential of the tourism industry to create growth, profits and positive social and environmental impact.

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