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Lighthouse Point – responsible tourism development?

Over the past weeks and months, there has been much hue and cry about Disney Cruise Line’s proposed cruise port development for Lighthouse Point in Eleuthera. Environmental and community activist groups are increasingly worried that this development will have a detrimental impact on the nation’s natural resources. The aim of my discussion is neither to support the proposed development nor to reject the idea, but to propose a baseline for the discussion founded on the fundamentals of sustainable and responsible tourism development. How do you find the right equilibrium between the three pillars of sustainability (3Ps) – profit (economy), people (social) and planet (environment) in a prospective development like the one proposed for Lighthouse Point? How about politics – the fourth ‘p’? Is the fourth ‘p’ going to derail the equilibrium? These are the critical questions that need to be understood before a development which could have an impact on our natural resources – which would be infinite only if well-managed – is seriously considered.

Lighthouse Point, Eleuthera in brief

Founded in 1648, Eleuthera Island is regarded as the birthplace of The Bahamas. The name Eleuthera originates from the Greek word “eleuthero” or “eleuther”, which means “free” or “freedom”. The name fits the island, with its unspoiled beauty and magnificent beaches, its laidback Bahama charm. Clear turquoise and aquamarine waters ring this 100-mile narrow strip of land providing a number of tropical vacation activities. Diving, snorkeling, swimming, fishing and boating are some of the island’s great adventures. Many regard Lighthouse Point as “one of the last great remaining wilderness places in The Bahamas” due to its location on the southernmost tip of Eleuthera.

What is great about this place is it is home to incredibly diverse and unique terrestrial and marine ecosystems. In addition to the unique pageantry of Mother Nature, this southernmost tip is also rich with cultural and historic resources. Lighthouse Point still holds significant value and heritage to Bahamians in general and Eleutherans in particular. Generations to come must be able to enjoy this ecosystem and every stakeholder has a responsibility to protect it and ensure balanced, sustainable development.

What is sustainable and responsible tourism?

According to the World Tourism Organisation (WTO), sustainable tourism is defined as, “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”. The WTO further adds that: (a) Sustainable tourism should make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity; (b) Sustainable tourism should respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance; and (c) Sustainable tourism should ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.

What, then, is responsible tourism? Responsible tourism was defined in Cape Town in 2002 alongside the World Summit on Sustainable Development. At that summit, responsible tourism was defined as, “Tourism that maximizes the benefits to local communities, minimizes negative social or environmental impacts and helps local communities conserve fragile cultures and habitats or species”.

Responsible tourism destinations provide quality travel experiences that promote the conservation of natural environments and offer opportunities and benefits for local communities. Responsible tourism operations are managed in such a way that they preserve the local environment and culture so that it can continue to deliver the benefits for years to come. In short, responsible tourism is about “using tourism to make better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit, in that order”.

Thus, as further outlined in the Cape Town Declaration, the following seven characteristics are a must in a destination that adheres to the principles of responsible tourism:

(a) minimizes negative economic, environmental and social impacts;

(b) generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities, improves working conditions and access to the industry;

(c) involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances;

(d) makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world’s diversity;

(e) provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues;

(f) provides access for physically challenged people; and

(g) remains culturally sensitive, engenders respect between tourists and hosts and builds local pride and confidence.

If a destination is not able to tick these seven characteristics, then it not regarded as fully responsible. So, how many of these seven boxes can the Lighthouse Point development tick?

Responsible tourism is therefore different from sustainable tourism in that it focuses on what people, businesses and governments do to maximize the positive economic, social and environmental impacts of tourism. It is about identifying the important issues locally and addressing those and transparently reporting progress towards using tourism for sustainable development.

Are the three-pillars of sustainability still valid?

Victor Anderson, in his online article in Social Europe in 2011, challenged the continuing validity of the “three pillars” of sustainability (Figure A) on the basis that they obscure the real relationship between the economic, the social and the environmental. Can they then be regarded as equal? He further argued that, “The environment is the physical reality all life depends on; the social is about one of the species within the environment, our own, organizing itself; and the economic” is, in turn, one sub-set of the social”. Hence, each of these dimensions should be nested within the next: economic within social within environmental (as shown in Figure B). From this argument, it is clear that the most important pillar of sustainability is the environment, followed by the social and then the economy. In the Lighthouse Point development, do environmental needs take precedence over social and economic desires?

Thus, this argument that there must be balance between the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental – seems to misrepresent the reality. What that means in practice is that, instead of pursuing sustainability, and forms of development which are sustainable, we get the pursuit of development which is semi-sustainable, to some extent aimed at staying within environmental limits but not doing so in any way which is really serious.

We should be aiming at development which combines economic, social and environmental aims, not at development which compromises between them. Anderson further questioned why we shouldn’t have development which is both environmentally sustainable and delivers good things for society: is this possibility unimaginable? We need to move away from the “trade-off” mindset of economists who seem willing to suffer long-term social and environmental degradation in the name of short-term economic goals. So, how about the Lighthouse Point development? How do we manage less dense development in an environmentally fragile location like Lighthouse Point? Is this conceivable?

What should be the best option for the Lighthouse Point development?

In conclusion, what the people on the ground are requesting is consultation and engagement with the local community. This is fundamental in any small island destination development that is fragile and in which the community is a main stakeholder. The UNESCO sustainable tourism guide emphasizes the importance of engagement with the local communities and businesses. This is imperative as all stakeholders will then have a greater sense of the limits of growth and will be conscious of their responsibilities. This can be done by talking and listening to the host community and businesses; identifying and communicating sustainable, economic local opportunities; and empowering the host community by telling their story in the site. Concurrently, it is important for the local community to understand the impact of irresponsible development to their pristine environment. What will be the long term impact of these development to the local economy?

So, should the Lighthouse Point development be allowed to have ‘controlled’ development as indicated by Disney Cruise Line? Or, should the site be secured (or Gazetted) as a multi-use national park to preserve its cultural, historical and natural value for generations to come? Simultaneously, how can we provide a long-term economic stimulus for this island? Remember, the fourth ‘p’ in the three pillars of sustainability – this can make or break and kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean of graduate studies and research and a professor of sustainable tourism at the University of The Bahamas.

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