The Caribbean seems to be everyone’s dream destination. Lush, white sand beaches, picturesque palm trees, perpetually warm weather, snorkeling, outdoor dining – what’s not to love?
When we told friends and family that we’d be house sitting for 6 weeks on the US Virgin Island of St. Croix, everyone gushed, oohing and ahhing and proclaiming their undying jealousy at being stuck in frigid New York while we languished in the Caribbean sun.
Because of the year-round warm temperatures, visiting the Caribbean is appealing no matter what time of year (though beware of hurricane season).
However, your trip can be seriously detrimental to the environment and local communities without some mindful planning for sustainable travel in the Caribbean.
While obviously the Caribbean is a large region and varies greatly per island, here we share some specific tips for responsible travel in the Caribbean.
Responsible Travel in the Caribbean: Local Community
While the Caribbean may seem like a dreamlike destination for you, remember that people actually live here. This is not just a playground for rich northerners to bop in for a weekend, galavanting around without giving a thought to the local community.
The good news is that tourists can have a positive impact on the local economy using the following tips for sustainable tourism in the Caribbean.
Visit in the Off Season
If you have a job that lets you choose when to take vacation, try traveling to the Caribbean in the off-season. While the Caribbean is warm year round, most northern visitors travel there in the winter, creating a very clear tourist season from approximately mid-December to mid-April.
By traveling in the off-season or shoulder season, you won’t be contributing to the craziness of tourist season (which impacts locals) and you’ll be contributing to the economy when places need it more. You’ll likely also find that hotel prices and flights are cheaper – bonus!
Stay in Locally Owned Accommodation
For responsible travel in the Caribbean, choose locally owned bed and breakfasts or hotels over international chain hotels or resorts.
All inclusive resorts and hotels are popular across the Caribbean as tourists look for an easy way to vacation in the sun. The majority of hotel rooms in the Caribbean are all inclusive, and in fact one-third of hotels in the Dominican Republic are all-inclusive. This model is big business and big money – but local communities rarely see a cent of it. It’s been estimated that 80% of a guest’s stay in an all-inclusive resort leaves the country! Responsible Vacation talks more about the issues of all inclusives in this article.
The reality is that if you’re interested in sustainable travel in the Caribbean, all-inclusives are not a good choice.
People pay a set rate and rarely venture outside of the resort on their vacation. And why would they, if they’ve already paid for unlimited food and alcohol?
Furthermore, all inclusive resorts limit local access to resources like water, electricity, and even natural land (beach) access. Read more in the article on the negative impacts of resorts by a resident of the Dominican Republic.
By the way, the same goes for cruises in the Caribbean, which don’t contribute to the local economy at all and are terrible for the environment!
If you’re looking for sustainable resorts in the Caribbean, check out this list.
Work Exchange, Couch Surf or House Sit
If you’re on a budget, these three options are fantastic for eco-friendly accommodations in the Caribbean! Not only will you get a much more local experience, but you won’t pay anything to do so.
We house sat in the US Virgin Islands for one month for a lovely couple and their adorable menagerie of animals. We know other house sitters who have spent much longer house sitting all over the Caribbean.
Seeing the local trend? Make sure that your money going back into the community by purchasing from locally owned shops. Local business owners patronize other local businesses and are usually passionate about improving their community.
Do you really need another magnet manufactured in China? What about some hand-crafted jewelry, art, or clothing?
This goes for buying local services and eating at locally owned restaurants too.
Learn the History and Culture
Though the islands might seem like all sunshine and blue clear waters, the history of the Caribbean is a dark one. Since the landing of Christopher Columbus, the region has never been the same. Upon his arrival, natives were systematically murdered, exploited, and removed from their lands.
And that was just the beginning of the Caribbean’s dark history. Once colonies were established and the sugar trade was lucrative, colonists realized they could get filthy rich through slavery. Thus, the transatlantic slave trade was established. Millions of Africans were forcibly removed from their homes, and either died en route to the Caribbean, or lived out their lives in the horrific conditions of plantation chattel slavery.
The landscapes of the Caribbean islands still bear slavery’s shadows. In St. Croix, one of the biggest sugar-producing islands, sugar mills can be seen throughout the landscape. Hundreds of ruined plantations stand tucked in the overgrown hills, echos of a past not quite forgotten.
As visitors to the Caribbean, it’s up to us to learn about what occurred on the very land that we walk on. This rings true whether we traverse the seaside towns or take a hike to a remote beach.
Visit a local museum, go on a walking tour, or read a book on the local history of the region. Strike up a conversation with an islander and learn their take about living there.
To learn more, read the book From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean 1492-1969.
Ecotourism in the Caribbean
There’s a very clear, unavoidable factor involved in traveling to the Caribbean – flying. No matter where you’re arriving from, chances are you’re getting there via plane, and likely one with a few layovers at that. Even traveling within the Caribbean is very difficult without getting on a plane. Ferries go to specific places, are usually expensive, and might not be convenient for your travel needs because of their infrequency of service.
Since flying to the Caribbean is unavoidable, we recommend traveling to one island and staying there for the duration of your vacation. Island-hopping via plane might sound glamorous, but the environment will disagree. Offset flights that you do take.
Read more: Should We Stop Flying for the Environment?
You might even want to explore your destination by bike! The fantastic book Cuba by Bike outlines exactly how to do that for those traveling in Cuba.
If you’re looking to reduce your impact and participate in ecotourism in the Caribbean, keep reading!
Wear reef safe sunscreen
Did you know that certain chemicals in many sunscreens have incredibly harmful effects on coral reefs?
Oxybenzone and octinoxate are the two main harmful chemicals to look out for. Instead, look for ones containing titanium oxide or zinc oxide. These compounds are not harmful to reefs.
Some places, such as Hawaii, have banned sunscreens containing harmful chemicals, but unfortunately the trend has yet to catch on in more places.
Keep in mind that it’s important to use reef-safe sunscreen not only on your trip to the Caribbean, but at home as well. If you wash it off in the shower, it has the possibility of making its way into the water table, no matter where you are. Besides, if these chemicals are harming reefs, do you really want them on your body?
Unfortunately, just buying a sunscreen labeled “reef safe” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the clear. This label is unregulated and literally anyone can put it on their product. It doesn’t mean anything as sunscreen producers don’t have to do any tests to indicate that their sunscreens aren’t harmful to aquatic life.
Mineral sunscreens with “non-nanotized” zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are much safer for reefs, however they might not provide as strong protection. If you’re extremely prone to burning, it’s best cover up with clothing layers.
Shop reef-safe sunscreens here:
Pick up plastic on the beach (and everywhere)
Keep a bag with you at all times just for picking up beach litter – you’ll need it. All the plastic, styrofoam, and bottles of alcohol find their way onto those white sand beaches and eventually into the ocean. While you’re having your tranquil walk on the beach, why not make an impact and collect up what others have left behind?
This is what we found in just a short walk along one of St. Croix’s beaches:
Bring Reusable Bags and Containers
It should go without saying that you should always pick up your own trash to avoid contributing to the beach and ocean pollution discussed above. But it’s easy to reduce your impact even more by reducing your waste with reusable items.
We were dismayed to find that the widespread use of styrofoam is alive and well in the Caribbean, at least in St. Croix where we stayed. Many places we went to only had styrofoam cups, plates, and plastic forks. Luckily, we always carry a day bag with all our reusable items to minimize waste.
We did not always succeed, as sometimes things were prepackaged or people are just not used to our request and used styrofoam out of habit. Be kind with yourself and others and just do your best to reduce as much waste as you can.
Read more: Eco-Friendly Packing List
Avoid Unethical Animal Encounters – Protect Local Wildlife Instead!
Cute animals like the swimming pigs in the Bahamas have attracted thousands (if not millions) of tourists over the years, unfortunately to the detriment of the poor piggies. Some have died when tourists fed them alcohol, while other visitors report that the pigs are culled to keep the population in check.
Anything that promises an interaction with a wild animal and allows touching of said animal is unethical. Imagine you had hundreds of tourists coming by to pet you every day? Stressful much? Avoid any activities that promise you’ll get to “pet the dolphins” or anything similar.
Instead, get involved with experiences that protect local wildlife. Choose to visit a Caribbean wildlife sanctuary or participate in local turtle conservation efforts.
Try Local Plant-Based Food
Speaking of animals, did you know that the animal agriculture industry is one of the biggest contributors of carbon emissions? This is one of the major reasons why we are vegan and why we talk so much about the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle here on this blog.
Even if you don’t want to go vegan, you can make a difference by reducing your consumption of animal products.
You’ll also be experiencing part of the local culture by eating in Ital eateries. Ital food is a way of eating celebrated by followers of Rastafarianism. It derives from the word “vital,” and involves consuming natural and highly nutritional foods that benefit health. Ital food ranges from vegan to pescatarian, with the main focus on whole foods, plant-based eating. Give it a try when you’re in the Caribbean!
Read more: Vegan Guide to St. Croix, US Virgin Islands
Explore the outdoors
Part of ecotourism in the Caribbean is immersing yourself in the beautiful outdoors that the islands have to offer. The Caribbean’s biodiversity is a large part of why the region is so popular for travelers. Don’t miss out on enjoying it, but be mindful of your impact!
Take a hike, go for a swim, go snorkeling, maybe even learn to scuba dive if you’re brave!
On our trip to St. Croix, we thoroughly enjoyed taking a nighttime bioluminescent kayaking tour with Virgin Kayak Tours. During the tour, you kayak around a small bay that is home to bioluminescent microorganisms that are solar-charged and light up when you run your hand through the water!
We highly recommend this incredible tour or any others highlighting these magnificent beings. This tour in Puerto Rico offers a rainforest walk and bioluminescent kayaking tour in one!
Choose Eco-Friendly Islands in the Caribbean
Environmental practices vary greatly per island. While all of the above tips can be followed wherever you go, you also might want to target an eco-friendly Caribbean island for your trip.
The small island of Bonaire is committed to sustainability and has plans to become the world’s first “blue destination.” The Dutch island has some of the best diving, snorkeling, and windsurfing areas, so if that’s up your alley, maybe Bonaire is your perfect spot!
The island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands is sparsely inhabited due to its status as a national park. Stay in one of the many eco-friendly accommodations on the island.
Read about other hot spots in these 8 Best Islands for Ecotourism