Show me your blue flag

Only three Caribbean countries so far have beaches certified by Blue Flag, an international programme for assessing the health of coastal waters. Nazma Muller investigates why this matters to sea-bathers and the tourism sector alike

Panoramic view of Las Cuevas Bay. Photograph courtesy TDC

It’s the last thing you want to think about while enjoying a dip in the sea, but if terms like “stormwater runoff” and “combined sewer overflow” mean anything to you, then you know what they can do to beaches, and the health of swimmers. It’s been estimated that thousands of “CSO events” across North America discharge millions of gallons of raw sewage and stormwater annually into the sea — along with tonnes of plastic and rubbish. It’s enough to make you resolve to stay on dry land.

Thankfully, the international Blue Flag programme flies in the face of this growing tide of marine pollution. Like a Michelin star for beaches and marinas, the Blue Flag is a symbol recognised by the discerning traveller who wants to be assured of a certain standard — and like a Michelin star, it’s also French. The concept was born in 1985, when the French government awarded the certification to coastal municipalities which complied with regulations for sewage treatment and water quality.

Two years later, to mark the European Year of the Environment, the Foundation for Environmental Education in Europe presented the French-born idea of the Blue Flag to the European Commission, with criteria added for waste management and coastal planning and protection. In 2001, the renamed Foundation for Environmental Education, based in Denmark, made the Blue Flag programme global. Today, more than four thousand beaches and marinas in countries across Europe as well as South Africa, Tunisia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada, and the Caribbean proudly fly the Blue Flag as a mark of safe and healthy waters.

A growing army of eco-conscious travellers has prompted operators of beaches and marinas to step up their game and “go green” — or rather, in this case, go blue. This means meeting thirty-three strict criteria covering water quality, environmental management, environmental information and education, and safety and services. The water must be tested regularly for contaminants, and the operator must also ensure that beaches and marinas have adequate waste-disposal facilities, properly maintained buildings and equipment, clean washrooms, information on local ecosystems and environmental phenomena, public safety measures, and even access for the physically disabled.

Blue Flags are given for only one season at a time. If the criteria are not fulfilled during the season or the conditions change, the Blue Flag may be withdrawn. The International Blue Flag Jury is composed of representatives from organisations like the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, the International Lifesaving Federation, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature — all heavy hitters.

 

In the Caribbean, Blue Flags have been awarded in only four countries: the Dominican Republic (eleven), Sint Maarten (two), the Bahamas (four), and most recently, Trinidad and Tobago. Las Cuevas, a sheltered bay on Trinidad’s north coast that is once again becoming a nesting ground for marine turtles, received the country’s first Blue Flag in 2014. The initiative was first considered by the beach operator, the state-owned Tourism Development Corporation (TDC), in a bid to capitalise on the island’s eco-tourism potential by setting environmental standards for the beaches that the TDC operates.

“Trinidad and Tobago has done a lot of work since they started working on the implementation of the Blue Flag programme,” says Sophie Bachet Granados, Blue Flag International Director. “Las Cuevas beach is the first fully compliant site in Trinidad, and, I am sure, an example for all future sites in Trinidad and Tobago. We are looking forward to seeing the programme develop in the country, as I know new sites are already working to reach full compliance for their next jury in September 2015.”

Asclepius Green, an independent NGO, was selected to be the national coordinator of the Blue Flag programme based on its background in eco-tourism, eco-resort site development, marine biology, and environmental systems. Joanna Moses-Wothke, who leads the NGO, explained that water testing is by far the most difficult and expensive factor in qualifying for the Blue Flag. “One hindrance to meeting the criteria is the cost of water quality testing,” she says. “In some countries the government pays for the tests to be done. So that is something we would like to push for — water quality testing around the country.”

The public too plays a major role in ensuring that standards are maintained at a Blue Flag beach, Moses-Wothke said. She urges beachgoers to contact her (via Facebook or email, preferably with photos) if they see any breaches of the Blue Flag standards. Complaints are sent to the national jury, which is made up of NGOs and government bodies, and depending on the severity of the issue of non-compliance, the national operator has a week to resolve the problem, or the flag must be taken down. “We also do control visits — some unexpected — at least once a month,” Moses-Wothke added, “and the national jury does site visits as well.”

Asclepius Green also conducts gap analyses of other beaches in Trinidad and Tobago. At present, three beach operators would like to apply for additional Blue Flags: Bacolet Bay Hotel in Tobago, the Chaguaramas Development Authority (beach operator for the north-west coast of Trinidad), and the TDC for the world-famous Maracas Beach.

When the Blue Flag was raised at the Las Cuevas Beach Facility in January 2015, TDC chairman Umesh Rampersad said it would send a strong message to the world that Trinidad and Tobago is serious about conservation. With Cuba opening up to the United States travel market, the menu of Caribbean beaches now available to American tourists has just doubled. “Being able to tout that your beach has an independently and internationally recognised certification is one way to communicate to the world market that a certain quality of experience can be expected,” said Rampersad. And it should help ordinary beachgoers to better enjoy their swim, safe in the knowledge that the beautiful waters of Las Cuevas Bay are also clean and healthy.

  • Mark Meredith

    Blue Flag status seems to be more of a marketing ploy favoured by third world countries than any serious attempt to clean up pollution by those countries concerned. While it is nice to see Las Cuevas in Trinidad receive a Blue Flag, comments by the TDC Chairman saying that Maracas Bay is “actively pursuing Blue Flag status for that popular local and tourist destination and the status could be declared as early as in the coming months” is just NOT true. I know because I spoke to the Blue Flag organisation about it. Maracas is not even on their radar, nor should it be given the pollution overload it receives from the Maracas River. As for the Chaguaramas area receiving such certification, well, that has to be a joke, surely? I now live in “green, clean” New Zealand, where relatively pristine beaches are the norm. NZ does not have any beaches listed as Blue Flag beaches, though two city marinas do get certification. New Zealand’s biggest earner is tourism. If Blue Flags were so important our coastline would be littered with them, wouldn’t it?