Preserving paradise

Francesco Frangialli advocates properly managed tourism as the best option for the sustainable development of small islands

Small island states are a bit of paradise for visitors, and most have limited possibilities for diversifying their economic base. So tourism is often the best prospect for encouraging development, job creation, foreign exchange earnings and other benefits. But small islands – and particularly developing ones – are also more vulnerable than other destinations to the excesses of tourism. So more economic and technical support is needed to ensure that its development is sustainable and that the income it generates benefits island communities.

These were among the main recommendations to come out of a joint World Tourism Organization (WTO)/ UNEP Conference on Sustainable Tourism in Small Island Developing States and other Islands, held in Lanzarote, Spain last year. WTO presented its conclusions to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development’s special session on tourism last April, and they have also been used to help prepare the agenda for the special session of the General Assembly on Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

A long-term solution
Our main message is that tourism can be a viable option for small islands, but only if it is solidly based on the principles of sustainable development – and especially if it has the economic and technical support of international organizations.

WTO is working to convince the World Bank, the Interamerican Development Bank and international financial institutions to grant special credits for funding sustainable tourism development projects. Meanwhile, island governments need to do their part by adopting long-term strategies for sustainable development, rather than opting for the quick gains that uncontrolled tourism brings.

We believe that tourism in SIDS should be considered as only one component of their overall sustainable development – and should be fully integrated into it. This will require all the stakeholders in tourism development and management to change their mentality. So it is essential to develop awareness campaigns and educational programmes directed at them.

Tourism is booming. WTO’s study, Tourism: 2020 Vision, predicts that 1.5 billion tourists will be visiting foreign countries annually by the year 2020, spending more that $2 trillion – or $5 billion every day. In other words, there would be nearly three times as many international tourists, spending nearly five times as much as last year. (In 1998, 635 million of them spent over $439 billion.) Tourist arrivals are predicted to grow by an average 4.3 per cent a year over the next two decades, and receipts from international tourism by 6.7 per cent a year.

Tourism in the 21st century will not only be the planet’s biggest industry, it will be the largest by far that the world has ever seen. Along with its phenomenal growth and size, the tourism industry will also have to take on more responsibility for its extensive impacts. That is not only its economic impact, but also its impacts on the environment, on societies and on cultural sites – all of which will be increasingly scrutinized by governments, consumer groups and the travelling public.

Tourism is both an opportunity and a challenge for SIDS: an opportunity to diversify limited economic activities and employment in the islands; and a challenge, as tourism has considerable impacts on island systems, which are usually extremely vulnerable. These impacts need to be fully taken into account and properly managed.

Positive interaction
Sustainable tourism development is becoming an irrevocable and irreversible demand by tourists and local populations all over the world – and hence in SIDS and other islands. There are growing demands for quality surroundings in which environmental sustainability, nature, culture, authenticity and exceptional places with an identity of their own are considered to be key values both for tourism appeal and local quality of life. Thus, a positive interaction should be sought between tourism and environmental, socio-cultural and economic factors.

The viability of new sustainable tourism policies in SIDS and other islands increasingly depends on a very broad participation by all stakeholders. It will be impossible to multiply the economic effects of tourism, achieve positive social and cultural development or conserve island ecosystems and natural resources without making the local community jointly responsible for meeting these aims.

Criteria, instruments and lines of action must be established to steer tourism and island development towards sustainability – and implemented forthwith. The ‘carrying capacities’ of island systems in relation to tourism are all-important, and integrated long-term strategies must be introduced as a preventive measure. Delaying the application of sustainable policies until such problems as economic downturn and cultural or environmental degradation emerge, can make it very difficult, even unfeasible, to put things right.

Tourism development in SIDS and other islands is characterized by its potential for expansion and by the unequal situation of different islands and regions. In the last four years, 90 per cent of SIDS have seen an increase in visitors’ numbers, but island states in Africa and Asia/Pacific are finding it more difficult to make tourism take off.

There is an overriding concern with problems which limit its growth in the short term – mainly air access, capital and infrastructure – in SIDS and other islands which are trying to launch or strengthen their tourism development. The need to introduce sustainability criteria, geared to preventing serious socio-cultural and environmental imbalances in island systems emerging in the future, is not yet perceived as important.

In SIDS and other islands where tourism has reached maturity in the absence of sustainability criteria, problems tend to arise in connection with the obsolescence and congestion of the tourism product, poor economic integration of tourism, increasing degradation of the environment, and growing social intolerance towards tourism and imported labour: these are difficult to resolve.

Selected small island tourism destinations, 1998
International tourist arrivals
International tourism receipts in million $
1. Puerto Rico
2. Dominican Republic
3. Cyprus
4. Bahamas
5. Cuba
6. Jamaica
7. Guam
8. N. Mariana Islands
9. Guadeloupe
10. Aruba
Source: World Tourism Organization

The way forward
In recent years – and particularly as a result of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 1994 Barbados Conference – there has been evidence that various measures are being developed in SIDS and other islands to try to integrate tourism better in sustainable island development. Nonetheless, inter-island cooperation and information is still very weak and generally there is a shortage of specific knowledge and suitable indicators to evaluate the real situation. Available analyses do not incorporate the implications of the various levels of island development, and real experiences, which could expedite progress in sustainable tourism development in SIDS and other islands, are barely divulged outside their territories.

Under its mandate from the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, WTO is setting up a working group on sustainable tourism development which will take a special interest in the problems of small island states. Its main objectives are to find ways of maximizing the benefits of tourism for local communities and to build the technical capacities of developing nations in this field – so that SIDS can remain a paradise for those who live there as well as those who visit.

Francesco Frangialli
is Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization.

PHOTOGRAPH: Topham Picturepoint

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Editorial M. T. El-Ashry | Let action... | The size of the problem | Looking good... | Vanishing islands | Whispers and waste | At a glance | Competition | Preserving paradise | Coral grief | ...biodiversity and beauty | Grassroots | GEF - helping small islands | Making a difference | UNEP - new books | Small is vulnerable | Measuring vulnerability | Exporting solutions | New friends in...

Complementary articles in other issues:
Nelson Andrade: Reefs and reforms (Tourism) 1999
Carlston Boucher: No island is an island (Tourism) 1999
Lucien Chabason: Crowded shores (Tourism) 1999
D.J. de Villiers: Beyond attractive destinations (Tourism) 1999
Norris Prevost: Beyond bananas (Tourism) 1999