Sustainability in Cold Water Islands



Jerome L. McElroy

Professor of Economics

Department of Business Administration and Economics

Saint Mary’s College

Notre Dame, Indiana 46556

TEL: 574-284-4488

FAX: 574-284-4566




Bruce Potter


Island Resources Foundation

1718 “P” Street NW, Suite T-4

Washington, DC 20036

TEL: 202-265-9712

FAX: 202-232-0748










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 Mediterranean has spawned over-burdened sewage and solid waste systems, disfigured shorelines and created intense seasonal congestion (Bramwell, 2004).  Several Greek island landscapes have been spoiled by rapid and unplanned coastal development (Andriotis, 2004).  Even the less tourism penetrated Pacific—with its history of nonsustainable logging, mining and fishing (Overton and Scheyvens, 1999)—has not escaped the scars of change (Apostolopoulos and Gayle, 2002).  In short, Bianchi’s summary (2004:499) applies: a generation of palpable economic benefits have come at a high price—rising environmental damage, dependency and cultural dislocation.

            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).

            The second strand emphasizes developing more holistic approaches to better capture tourism’s complexity and volatility.  Some authors stress expanding the horizon of possibilities for Butler’s (1980) lifecycle model of tourism evolution (Briassoulis, 2004).  For example, Papatheodorou (2004) emphasizes a systems approach with core and periphery nodes in a destination and multiple equilibrium solutions.  Others press for longer-run, non-linear frameworks that borrow from science and use transdisciplinary thinking (Farrell and Twining-Ward, 2004; 2005).  For example, McKercher (1999) favors a chaos/complexity framework that treats tourism as a living ecological community with keystone (primary) attractions.  In a similar vein, Russell and Faulkner (2004) use chaos theory to understand entrepreneurial vagaries and resort development.  Among other things, the interplay between these two strands--both the new thinking and improved tourism styles—has produced the groundswell of interest in ST.

The Problem

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 target.  As Butler (1980) has argued, successful destinations tend to pass through successive stages of increasing visitor density, facility size, external control and bio-cultural damage until saturation and/or their appeal wanes.  This movement is principally due to the scale discontinuity between the large-scale mass market international throughput tourist economy and the small relatively closed insular ecology—a scale discrepancy that almost guarantees island natural and social carrying capacities will be threatened (McElroy, 1975).  Fourth, there is no univocal definition of sustainability.  Most formulations are rooted in the 1987 Bruntland Report: development in the present that does not compromise options for future generations; yet much debate has centered on “hard” (constant natural assets—Collins, 1999) versus “soft” (allowing for human-made replacements—McKercher, 1993) sustainability.  One tends, however, to agree with (Clarke, 1997:229) that “. . . the absence of a precise good definition is less important than general movement in the correct direction”.


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.

            The 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 Bermuda, Mauritius and Seychelles where tourism is not the sole engine of growth.  Viable alternative economic activities tend to blunt the pressure to promote tourism beyond insular ecological and social carrying capacities.  In addition, for most warm-water destinations across all oceanic basins, usually the most determinative factor in tourism’s historical gestation has been the establishment of an international airport.  This underlines the overwhelming significance of access on insular amenities and populations.

            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).

Cold Cases

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, Butler (1997) stresses rural ambience and heritage assets, wildlife and unique scenery, and the possibilities of adventure activity.  In their analysis of North Atlantic islands, Baum and others (2000) emphasize three major development limitations: insufficient tourism recognition by policy-makers, extreme seasonality because of inclement weather, and restricted high-cost access because of remoteness.  However, they also underscore the advantages of a small scale visitor industry: enhanced local ownership, reduced income leakages, and the availability of infrastructure and services “. . . which island populations could not otherwise sustain” (Baum and others, 2000: 217).

            The cases assembled in this volume differ widely in size: from Greenland, the largest island in the world, and Iceland (population 300,000) to tiny Macquarie Island in Australia (34 km2), Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic (population 153), and the Luleå Archipelago in Sweden (population 80).  They also exhibit a variety of distinct traditions including, among others, the Inuit culture in Baffin Island, Canada, Viking history across the North Atlantic Islands, and the Maori muttonbird harvesting in Stewart Island, New Zealand.   Although most are recently emerging as international destinations, they differ somewhat in the stages of tourism development.  The major contrast is between Iceland (a mass tourist destination with over 300,000 annual tourists, roughly 20,000 cruise visitors and over 6,000 hotel rooms) and the rest of the pack: most notably less than 500 yearly tourists to Macquarie Island and the Luleå Archipelago, and only 50 hotel rooms and two hotels in the Falklands and Chatham Island, New Zealand respectively.  Between these extremes are a half dozen destinations with 30-60 thousand annual stayover or cruise visitors.  In comparison with other small island tourist economies across the globe, all these are low-impact destinations, with the possible exception of Iceland (McElroy, 2003).

            Despite 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 excepting Iceland, they also exemplify small-island economies undergoing tourism diversification in the face of declining traditional sectors (mining, fishing, agriculture).  Many face the similar challenges of determining destination identity, the small-scale ecotourism attractions compatible with that native natural and cultural “genius of the place,” and establishing the infrastructure/facilities to access them.  Unlike Iceland (which may, in coming decades, need to begin seriously managing visitor densities), these destinations are in the initial stages of visitor marketing and promotion to establish international visibility.  Fortunately, at their early position in the resort cycle, they have ample time and room to plan a sustainable industry. 

Special Issues

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 (Davis, 1981).  This interest has gradually extended to other solid waste issues (AMAP, 2002).  Recent research reported in Science magazine indicates that birds and other species in arctic food chains are also serving as aggregators (rather than just consumers) of toxics (Fountain, 2005).

            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.

            While 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.  Associated with Arctic warming and melting of the ice packs will be changes in precipitation patterns that may impact snow and ice conditions that are now features of tourism, such as ski or snowshoe trekking or “ice hotels.”  If and when these climate trends become more visible to and generally understood by cold island populations, planners may have to exercise some control over tourism entrepreneurs to avoid non-sustainable and damaging growth thrusts spawned by the “make hay while the sun shines” mentality common in some “boom-bust” insular economies (Vernicos, 1990). In addition, in the medium term and at a minimum, for cold water islands with permafrost conditions, Arctic warming will require rehabilitation of existing construction which is built on permafrost footings, and new forms of construction based on seasonal freezing and thawing of ground conditions.

            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” (Butler, 2002: 12).  To achieve sustainability, it must be carefully managed, a far-ranging task in such a pervasive and fragmented industry involving a multitude of actors and common natural and cultural resources over which “no agency has responsibility for their overall well-being and continued existence” (Butler, 2002: 13).  Whatever the outcome, these low-density cold-water destinations will provide an interesting laboratory for future scholars in their search for the holy grail.  Perhaps the result will be what Butler (1997:78) forecast for Orkney and Shetland: “. . . these islands may prove to be one of the few genuine cases of sustainable tourism development.”


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