Jerome L. McElroy
Professor of Economics
Department of Business Administration and Economics
Saint Mary’s College
Island Resources Foundation
1718 “P” Street NW, Suite T-4
This chapter focuses on achieving sustainable tourism, particularly in small cold water islands where coming decades will witness an escalation of tourism demand. It argues that the origin of the ST concept is based on dissatisfaction with the damaging spread of mass tourism across the pleasure periphery and the evolution of research from advocating low-impact ecotourism and other small-scale styles to calls for more holistic transdisciplinary thinking. It reviews present problems and proposes the “Sustainability Diamond”: simultaneously satisfying the needs of hosts, guests and entrepreneurs along with the preservation of natural and cultural assets. Lessons from warm-water tourism experience and the lifecycle literature are emphasized. Finally, common attractions and constraints are identified among the cold water destinations examined in this volume, and waste management and climate change issues are addressed. The conclusion suggests these islands by and large are on a sustainable path.
Given accelerating ecosystem damage and the decline in biodiversity on a global scale, the search for sustainability pervades contemporary development discourse and will likely dominate the economic-environmental debate across the 21st century. However broadly defined—a rising standard of living for a growing population experiencing expanding economic choice and political autonomy over generations—sustainable growth will likely be considered the holy grail of the present generation. Since tourism has become the largest industry in the world economy—accounting for roughly ten percent of global GDP, employment, exports and investment (WTTC, 2005)—and since its long-standing viability depends on environmental durability, it is not surprising that sustainable tourism (ST) has become the dominant paradigm (Hunter, 1995) in both tourism theory and practice as well as an issue that continues to be hotly debated (Velikova, 2001).
This sustainable tourism (ST) emphasis is particularly appropriate for many small islands engaged in postwar economic restructuring towards tourism diversification. This transformation has been driven by a confluence of push and pull factors. First, export revenues from traditional colonial staples (sugar, copra etc.) have declined because of loss of preferential (high-price) markets and rising transport costs (WTO, 2004). Second, domestic agriculture has been buffeted by import competition as trade barriers have fallen. Third, the demand for an island holiday has been fueled by postwar affluence in the industrial North and the availability of jet access to and transport infrastructure in the once remote island tropics. The appeal of insular separation, distinctness, and boundedness (Baum, 1997) has made the paradise getaway a fixture in the middle-class imagination. Finally, the focus on ST is timely since, according to Fennell and Ebert (2004:269), coming decades will witness an acceleration of long-haul tourism converging on the more remote and ecologically vulnerable ecosystems like the cold-water islands examined in this volume where tourism experience and planning are relatively limited.
The recent gestation of the ST
concept is sourced in two related phenomena: (1) the rapid and damaging global
spread of international tourism across the island periphery especially since
1960, and (2) the changing emphases of the tourism research chronicling these
impacts. In the former case, resort
construction and road networks on steep mountain slopes have caused
deforestation, erosion, lagoon pollution and reef damage (McElroy and de
Albuquerque, 1998). Over growth in the
Against this backdrop of change, early researchers in the 1960s touted the economic benefits of tourism diversification to drive post-colonial insular modernization (Jafari, 2002). As the negative ecosystem spillovers associated with rapid mass tourism growth surfaced during the 1970s, this advocacy platform was followed by a critical literature emphasizing tourism’s ecological and socio-cultural intrusions. Since the 1980s a new so-called “adaptancy platform” has emerged seeking to address the concerns of the critics in two different directions. The first emphasizes small, low-impact, locally controlled alternatives to mass tourism (Weaver, 1998). It includes both the expansion of ecotourism and other special interest forms (agro, adventure, cultural etc.) as well as the greening of conventional tourism through reduced utility consumption and waste production (Spilanis and Vayanni, 2004).
second strand emphasizes developing more holistic approaches to better capture
tourism’s complexity and volatility.
Some authors stress expanding the horizon of possibilities for
Despite these advances in theory
and practice, sustainability remains elusive in island tourism for at least
four reasons. First, despite tourism’s
pervasiveness, most studies continue to be conducted within single disciplinary
boundaries and generate narrow policy outcomes that fail to gauge the widespread
impacts of tourism. Second, planning
tourism development in small islands is particularly difficult because of their
inherent fragility on two fronts: extreme interdependence on the inside; and openness
to external intrusion from the outside.
The former is especially problematic because of the delicate linkages
between terrestrial and marine ecosystems in volcanic islands that complicate
planning options. Inappropriate hillside
resort construction accelerates runoff and pollutes lagoons while sand dredging
destabilizes coastlines, erodes beaches and chokes coral growth. Third, island tourism is a moving
Despite these differences, however, a sampling of definitions suggest ST does contain a core of common elements. This core embraces balance among economic, ecological, and socio-cultural processes. Various formulations may express particular emphases. For example, at the top of the list for the World Tourism Organization (WTO, 2004: 62) is maintaining essential ecological stability. On the other hand, a recent textbook (Tribe, 2005: 380) defines sustainability “as growth which is not threatened by feedback, for example, from pollution, resource depletion or social unrest.” Several authors stress the importance of ST’s favorable local impacts: ecosystem conservation and improvement in host quality of life (Weaver, 1998: 17); developing domestic decision-making capacity or empowerment (Sofield, 2003); and contributing “beyond the confines of the resort community” to the sustainable development of the non-tourist economic sectors (Hunter, 1995: 160). Most definitions tend to underline two additional imperatives: proactive, comprehensive planning over long time horizons (Fennell and Ebert, 2004: 468; Kahn, 2005), and maintaining “a high level of tourist satisfaction. . .” (WTO, 2004: 62).
One short-hand way to understand the meaning of ST is to summarize its formidable challenge, that is, to simultaneously satisfy the needs of the major stakeholders: hosts, guests, entrepreneurs and bio-cultural assets (Hunter, 1995: 156). As a working definition based on this challenge, we propose the so-called four-cornered “sustainability diamond”—a rough but useful reference point for briefly analyzing the cold-water cases to follow. This embraces the following (McElroy, 2002: 152):
1. durable natural and cultural assets;
2. improved host life quality;
3. enduring visitor enjoyment; and
4. long-term enterprise profitability.
Accordingly, a destination is said to be moving in the right direction when one or more of the following barometers of ST surfaces at least to some degree:
(1) islanders becoming major beneficiaries of tourism;
(2) visitors developing a strong return ethos;
(3) developers respecting the integrity of the native “genius of the place”; and
(4) public decision-makers committing to long-term planning, impact monitoring, and controlling “visitor numbers, activities and investments, if intrusive and damaging to insular scale” (McElroy, 2002: 165).
Moreover, there are a number of lessons from warm-water island experience deserving mention. Royle (2001:206) cautions that “Tourism everywhere is a double-edged sword. . .” creating both costs and benefits. The WTO (2004: 61) warns that any tourism activity “even at low levels of intensity” will produce environmental and socio-cultural impacts. According to Cater (1993: 89), “There is no example of tourist use that is completely without impact.” In fact, even low-density alternatives to mass tourism like ecotourism are no panacea, especially when they access delicate amenities in poor regions lacking appropriate regulations and monitoring. In addition, they often are susceptible to rapid change and foreclose local participation to aggressive outsiders (Cater, 1993). In a similar vein, Weaver (1998:25) argues that “successful” styles can infiltrate “backstage regions” in the search for authentic local interaction, disrupt the pace and pattern of community living, and “pave the way for less benign forms of tourism.” Even in cases where ecotourism seems sustainable on the local level, Gossling (2002:200) maintains “. . . it may not be sustainable from a global point of view” when it involves long-haul travel since 90 percent of the environmental impact is contributed by air transport to and from the destination.
lifecycle literature is particularly revealing about how destinations at
different stages of development face different planning challenges:
establishing infrastructure and identity in emergence, controlling the pace of
change during growth, and managing visitor densities and vacation quality in
maturity (McElroy and de Albuquerque, 1998).
A number of case studies suggest also that ST may be more easily
achieved in truly diversified insular economies like
Finally, given a generation of unprecedented tourism development in small islands “at the expense of the natural world and local identity and traditional cultures” (Fennel and Ebert, 2004: 461), and given the likelihood that future growth thrusts will envelop even more remote, unexploited ecosystems, sustainability may require occasional use of the Precautionary Principle. According to Myers (1993: 74), this places “a premium on a cautious and conservative approach to human interventions in environmental sectors that are: (a) usually short on scientific understanding, and (b) usually susceptible to significant injury. . .” Such an approach seems appropriate for the delicate assets in new tourism areas of cold-water islands where carrying capacities cannot be easily assessed, recovery to disturbance is slow, and “both the probability and value of irreversible damage are uncertain” (Fennell and Ebert, 2004: 466). As a tool in the planner’s arsenal, the PP appropriately “ . . . puts the onus on the present population to address current actions that might lead to potential risks and negative outcomes for future generations” (Fennell and Ebert, 2004: 468).
The limited literature on cold
water islands does identify many strategic advantages and shortcomings that
circumscribe tourism growth. In his
examination of the northern islands of Orkney and Shetland,
cases assembled in this volume differ widely in size: from
such differences, these cases possess a similarity in assets that define them
as cold-water destinations. These
include isolation, unusual terrestrial and marine wildlife and scenery, unique
geologic and atmospheric features and ample opportunity for adventure holidays
(hunting, fishing, sledding etc.) and cultural experiences. By and large, they also illustrate the
constraints on tourism development imposed by climate-induced seasonality and
difficult and expensive access. Again
Waste management and climate change
will provide particular challenges for cold-water island planners. In the first case, since at least the 1994
Barbados Programme of Action for Small Island Developing States, waste
management has been acknowledged as one of the most significant and pervasive
sustainable development problems for small islands (UN CSD, 1998). In cold water islands, cold temperatures slow
the biochemical processes of decomposition that frequently “de-toxify” the
toxic elements of solid waste. Thus
these toxic and hazardous substances persist for much longer in cold climes,
and under some conditions they are concentrated or distilled over time to the
point that they represent health and safety problems. Attention was drawn to this subject in the early
1980s with arctic studies of atmospheric deposition of organochlorines (
Research also suggests concentrations of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and some heavy metals are increasing in the fatty tissues of most birds and mammals in high latitude areas including resident human (frequently Inuit) populations. Although the health impacts on employees or even tourists at cold water tourism facilities are unlikely, based on what is now known the existence of hot spots (or hot toxic species) should be examined. In addition, to avoid contributing to increasing “toxic loads” on high latitude environments—and in light of the sometimes severe constraints on traditional solid waste burial strategies in such areas—many sustainable tourism facilities in cold water islands will have to consider strategies that include exporting waste streams (perhaps after burning non-toxic elements for facility heating needs) to temperate areas where they can be treated in more traditional fashion. With respect to liquid wastes, although cold water islands are likely to have access to some form of deepwater or offshore discharge, these can be costly systems to build and maintain. Given these difficulties, the Alaska Science Forum (1992) recommends water-conserving systems for new and expanded settlement areas as well as the use of composting toilets.
Moreover, climate change scenarios for high latitude areas generally predict temperature increases over the next 50 years of 5 to 7 degrees Celsius: substantially above other areas of the globe. One effect of this change will be to reduce seasonal sea ice or permanent sea pack ice around many cold water islands, with unknown effects on both local ecosystems, the livelihoods of local residents, and on the natural amenities for which tourism plans are currently being made. Such eventualities suggest the need for a long-term planning horizon and a certain caution about mounting large-scale grandiose developments.
Arctic warming can contribute to increases in observed levels of contaminants
like POPs, Heavy metals and radionuclides (AMAP, 2002), a secondary, and
perhaps more dramatic impact will be to release large pulses of toxic
substances as dumps and trash middens are rather suddenly thawed after being
frozen for decades or generations. This
is perhaps the most dramatic result of the general conditions referred to in
the AMAP recommendations mentioned above.
Finally, to assist in long-range planning and environmental monitoring in these fragile ecosystems, cold water islands need accurate mapping of basic geography, land cover and other natural resources. Such mapping can also provide accurate orientation tools--probably in combination with modern navigations tools such as GPS receivers—for tourists who may be trekking and camping on relatively unmarked terrain (Savitsky and others, 1999).
According to the sustainability diamond, the majority of these islands at least in the near term are on the path towards sustainable ecotourism destinations. A broad brush overview suggests that, with some exceptions, there is sufficient environmental awareness, legislation and training for protecting natural assets and, in some cases, for interpreting cultural mores. Given the relatively high level of repeat visitation in several islands, visitor satisfaction seems satisfactory and enduring. Progress is needed in target-marketing and developing new attractions (and in coordinating tourism policy in a few instances) in order to more firmly establish the industry on a strong economic footing so that a threshold of community members have a financial stake in tourism’s future. The strength of the non-tourist sectors and the double limitations of difficult access and high cost provide future safeguards against the non-sustainable visitor expansion characteristic of postwar mass tourism growth in warm-water islands. To this must be added the limited appeal of what often has been described as “the holiday adventure of a lifetime”.
On the other hand,
local decision-makers must exercise a healthy dose of precaution and policy
control. Tourism is extremely dynamic
and “tends to take on a life of its own once development appears successful” (
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