What the Increase in Sargassus Seaweed Means for Caribbean Tourism

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It’s only been an issue in recent years, first appearing in 2011, but the sargassus seaweed in the Atlantic Ocean is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. This year, destinations from Florida to the Riviera Maya and Playa Del Carmen in Mexico, as well as islands in the Caribbean including the Dominican Republic, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Tobago and Antigua, are all affected.

Travel Agent just returned from a trip to Barbados, where we experienced the issue firsthand. Streaks of brown along the coastline can be seen from the sky, mixing in with the usually bright blue waters. Along the beach, hotel employees can be seen shoveling and consolidating piles of the seaweed—some over six feet high. Trucks remove the seaweed and either bury it nearby or transport it to a landfill.

The Caribbean Council says, “Although there are no reports of visitor cancellations, the hospitality industry across the region is concerned about the seaweed’s unsightly appearance, visitor complaints, the cost of mechanical removal and the possibility of reputational damage. The seaweed’s arrival also coincides with the start of the season when many European visitors arrive in the Eastern Caribbean.” In addition to negatively affecting tourism, The Caribbean Council also says the seaweed is also causing issues among local fishermen.

Travel Agent is told that the Caribbean Tourism Organization has not yet issued a statement on the matter. It is still in the process of polling its members to find out the impact of the seaweed, "if any," a spokesperson says.

There are very few ideas as to what to do about the arrival of the saraggasus seaweed—likely because no one knows why it’s become such a problem. The top reasons, as Travel Agent learned in Barbados, seem to be a changing climate and wind/ocean patterns that are carrying the seaweed to the destinations. Accuweather reports that Dr. Straun R. Smith, curator at the Natural History Museum, Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, says additional causes may be rainfall patterns, hurricanes and ocean nutrient levels. As it’s a relatively recent problem, it’s also unclear whether this will become a yearly problem. Speaking with multiple locals, Travel Agent was told the arrival of the seaweed usually only lasts several weeks—it’s not a yearlong problem.

One positive, according to Everything Playa Del Carmen, is that the seaweed makes for good mulch and brings nutrient to dunes, helping plants grow near the beach. And, according to The Weather Network, researchers on Barbados are investigating the use of sargassum as a sustainable energy source.

The seaweed comes from the Sargasso Sea, in the western Atlantic Ocean. During our trip, we discovered that the seaweed was only affecting the eastern and southern shores of the island. On the west coast, we found little to no seaweed, ocean colors were their usual blue and plenty of people were enjoying the beach and water.

If you’re sending clients to the Caribbean, absolutely be sure to check with the hotel as to its particular situation with the seaweed. Continue checking out www.travelagentcentral.com, where we will continue to monitor the situation.

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