Since 1981, the International Tourism Fair (FITUR) has been held in Madrid, Spain, a showcase for world tourism and a space for the development of business opportunities in the sector. The Dominican Republic has known how to take advantage of this space for decades to promote its tourism industry, but it must be recognized that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of President Luis Abinader, with the wise leadership of the Minister of Tourism, David Collado, and determined and committed tourism entrepreneurs, have boosted Dominican participation in this space and have taken it to the next level. It may be a truism, but it must be recognized that the rapid recovery of tourism as of 2021, as a result of the opening of the domestic market accompanied by massive vaccination campaigns and an aggressive regional positioning when other destinations continued to crouch proved to be highly effective policies, constitute undeniable merits of the Government. The numbers are there for all to see (around 7 million tourists in 2022) and one cannot be stingy in recognizing these achievements, which have been linked to the post-pandemic economic recovery, even in a complex global scenario due to the economic impact of the war in Ukraine.
In this scenario of expansion and dynamization of the tourism sector, the stone in the shoe remains Pedernales. The creation of the innovative figure of the Pro-Pedernales Trust, undoubtedly an interesting and promising idea, was born with an error of origin in its own baptismal certificate, Decree 720-020 of December 2020. This birth error was the failure to explicitly recognize the existence of the Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo Biosphere Reserve (RBJBE), created in 2002 by the Dominican Government with the support of the Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). I have already referred to this subject and its implications in another article. Here, suffice it to say that the Pro-Pedernales Trust was born embedded in the RBJBE and with it a set of opportunities for local sustainable development that can enhance its social and economic impact. Recognizing the potential of the RBJBE and its protected areas for local development and not as a barrier, requires a change of mentality, of approach and above all a commitment to sustainable development, not only de jure, but de facto.
This week, two events have attracted our attention. First, the well-informed press has reported that two months after the State launched the bidding process to find a strategic partner to join the tourism development project promoted by the trust, no one has yet appeared. Secondly, at FITUR Madrid, in a meeting with the press, representatives of major Spanish chains with a presence in the Dominican Republic and regional markets, affirmed their commitment to market segmentation and environmental sustainability.
These two developments should not be underestimated or viewed separately by the promoters of the Fideicomiso Pro-Pedernales. It is certainly unlikely that a serious chain committed to the new market niches of sustainable tourism (ecotourism, agro-tourism, rural tourism, etc.) would take a risk in a venture whose prospects for environmental sustainability are not very clear, especially in a context of protected areas internationally recognized for their importance, as is the case in the RBJBE. There will always be an interested party (group or promoter) of questionable or dubious environmental reputation that will take the risk, especially since in the case of Cabo Rojo, Pedernales the financial risks are being assumed mainly by the Dominican State. Therefore, it will be a matter of time before someone comes along, but it is unlikely that an international chain subject to scrutiny and compliance with environmental norms and standards will expose itself to reputational risk. The RBJBE is there whether the trust and its instruments recognize it or not. The three national parks that make up the reserve are there and predate it: Lago Enriquillo National Park (1974), Sierra de Bahoruco National Park (1983) and Jaragua National Park (1987).
How can we take advantage of the opportunities that the RBJBE represents for sustainable tourism in Pedernales? Much has been written about this, and previous tourism management plans developed over a decade ago by the Ministry of Tourism with the support of international organizations have outlined a fairly clear guideline. Low to moderate density tourism subject to strict environmental controls. The segment of the tourism market committed to environmental sustainability is growing and it is estimated that one third of the global tourism demand is made up of consumers interested in this type of tourism activity. The environmentally sensitive tourist tends to spend much more at destinations and is made up of higher income consumers than the conventional tourist. At the regional level, the Costa Rican experience is a well-known model of sustainable tourism with a segmented demand for ecotourism as the main activity. It is possible to build the rooms in Cabo Rojo, it is possible even the reckless idea of a cruise terminal, perhaps also the expansion of the Cabo Rojo aerodrome, but within a friendly and respectful scale with the environment and natural resources.
Another bet is the one that has to do with the regional scale of sustainable tourism in the southwestern region of our country, to take advantage of all the potential offered by the RBJBE and its surroundings. I do not want to repeat myself, but the expansion of the Barahona airport should be contemplated and that this city should serve as the regional center, without this being detrimental to what can be done in Pedernales, nor should what is done in Pedernales affect the potential of the entire region in terms of sustainable tourism. We must move towards a more inclusive model of territorial development and the Pro-Pedernales Trust Fund, reoriented in its objectives, can become a development tool with high local impact.
The RBJBE and all the wealth around it constitutes a unique heritage of inestimable intergenerational strategic value, not only in terms of tourism, but also for the non-renewable resources it harbors (metallic and non-metallic mining), for the renewable resources that can be harnessed (wind energy, solar, forestry, etc.) and for the sustainable production opportunities that enhance local development. For the above reasons, the Dominican State and society as a whole must be attentive and ensure that only the best investors and external partners are part of any initiative in their environment.
The interest in diversification, in market segmentation in favor of environmental sustainability in the international demand for activities related to sustainable tourism, is on the agenda of large investors in the tourism business. The environment of the RBJBE offers unique opportunities for the take-off of sustainable tourism in the Enriquillo sub-region, in a delicate balance that makes compatible the needs and opportunities of local development, with the conservation purposes related to the unique natural resources housed in the RBJBE and its surroundings. The difficulties in finding partners for the Pedernales project, as well as the commitments to environmental sustainability announced at FITUR 2023, must be understood as a whole, as a continuum that must link local development commitments and the potential role of tourism, with conservation and sustainable development in the RBJBE environment. FITUR 2023 has marked the way.
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