The Impact of Tourism in Small Islands: A Global Comparison


Jerome L. McElroy

Professor of Economics

Department of Business Administration and Economics

Saint Maryís College

Notre Dame IN 46556-5001 USA




††††††††††† Mass tourism development has been the primary postwar strategy of choice for small islands, defined here roughly as less than a million inhabitants and 20,000 km2 in area.But large-scale resorts and infrastructure along delicate coastlines and hotel and condominium clusters across mountain faces have caused irreversible damage to the native natural and cultural patrimony.One source of the problem has been the absence of a comprehensive measure of tourismís socio-economic and environmental impacts, i.e. an early warning signal.


††††††††††† This study briefly reviews the environmental and biodiversity outlooks for the island countries of the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and the Pacific and develops such an early warning signal.This tourism penetration index is constructed from three variables: per capita visitor spending, daily visitor density per 1,000 population, and number of hotel rooms per km2.It is applied to 47 islands around the world including 21 in the Caribbean, 15 in the Pacific, five in the Indian Ocean and three apiece in the Mediterranean (Balearics, Malta, Cyprus) and Atlantic (Bermuda, Canaries, Cape Verde).The index assumes the higher the degree of tourism penetration the greater the level of socio-cultural and environmental intrusion.


††††††††††† The results confirm what is generally known from the literature.The most penetrated islands include a cluster of eleven internationally visible and highly tourist-dependent destinations.They comprise popular Caribbean resort areas like Aruba, British Virgins, Caymans and St. Maarten plus Bermuda and Canaries in the Atlantic, the Balearics and Malta in the Western Mediterranean, and Guam,Marianas and Hawaii in the Pacific.Such destinations literally define the postwar pleasure periphery for North America, Europe and Japan.They are characterized by large-scale resort complexes, high-density visitation, relatively short visitor stays and the gradual replacement of man-made attractions for lost natural and cultural amenities.


††††††††††† According to the index, the least penetrated microstates comprise 15 primarily Pacific and Indian Ocean islands.At the bottom of the scale are remote outposts like the Solomons, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa as well as the Marshalls and Cape Verde.These are emerging destinations with cultures and ecosystems relatively intact whose tourism is characterized by small-scale facilities, long visitor stays, limited infrastructure and communications and considerable planning room to maneuver and ecotourism possibilities.At the higher end of this cluster is a subgroup of islands with a couple of decades of tourism growth.Such destinations (St. Vincent, Mauritius, Reunion, New Caledonia, Fiji) may soon graduate into the intermediate range of tourist development.



††††††††††† The most dynamic and heterogeneous island group are those with intermediate penetration scores.These include 21 destinations that fall roughly into three groups.At the upper end are seven Caribbean islands approaching the most penetrated stage.These are primarily small Lesser Antillean islands dominated by tourism: Anguilla, Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Bonaire, U.S. Virgins and Turks/Caicos.Most all of these destinations are dealing with the social and environmental conflicts associated with high-density status.At the lower end are a few recent graduates from the least penetrated stage, namely Grenada and Dominica.In the middle of the intermediate range are a number of islands experiencing rapid visitor growth and hotel room and infrastructure construction: Curacao, St. Kitts and St. Lucia in the Caribbean; Maldives and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean and French Polynesia in the South Pacific.Such intermediate destinations face a variety resource use conflicts.


††††††††††† The study concludes with a discussion of the planning challenges appropriate for each stage of tourism penetration and offers some broad suggestions for sustaining natural and cultural assets in the context of a viable island tourist industry.