Political will in sustainable and responsible tourism development, pt. 1
Note: The main discussion in this article was adapted from Mihalič, T., Šegota, T., Cvelbar, L.K. and Kuščer, K.’s (2016) “The influence of the political environment and destination governance on sustainable tourism development: a study of Bled”, Slovenia, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Vol. 24(11), pp. 1489-1505.
Happy New Year to all. Two thousand and nineteen is looking to be another roller coaster ride for The Bahamas, at least as far as sustainable and responsible tourism is concerned. The impact of climate change on the Caribbean, as a whole, and The Bahamas, in particular, is real. The government has a serious responsibility to play an impactful role in managing the political environment and destination governance on sustainable tourism development.
In past issues in this column and in many of my talks at conferences and symposiums across the globe, I have stressed that the 3Ps of sustainability — the “profit” (economy), “people” (social) and the “planet” (environment) — can be destabilized by the fourth “P”, which is the “politics”. Whilst this alleged ‘win-win-win’ (for the economy-social-environment) strategy places important emphasis on the role of business to lead the way toward sustainable development, the complexity of governance and the influence of political parties on the process has gone under-emphasized. Trying to develop a working relationship between business, politics, society and the natural environment is a difficult task for any nation, including The Bahamas. Politics include organization and governance; law and justice; communication and critique; representation and negotiation; security and accord; dialogue and reconciliation; and ethics and accountability. All of these can severely impact the sustainability of any tourism product. The political will is critical for the notion of sustainability to be adopted in all related policies that can determine the survival of this nation.
Impacts of sustainable tourism
For decades, sustainable tourism destination development has attracted considerable attention from researchers across the globe. There have been many studies on the negative and positive impacts of tourism on destination resources and communities. In addition to bringing positive and negative impacts to communities, tourism development can also be influenced by how the residents of a destination perceive these impacts. The role of the government is critical in influencing the perception of the local community if a particular policy needs to be supported.
In a country like The Bahamas, it would be an understatement to suggest that the leadership of the various trade unions representing communities in various fields has been exceptionally vocal over the past years. Thus, for the three pillars of sustainability to achieve the correct equilibrium, the influence of the political environment can be a deciding construct for sustainable tourism. This is true as destination residents (local community and residents) develop their support for tourism based on their satisfaction with their lives in the tourism-affected communities. Tourism is part and parcel of life in The Bahamas. Hence, understanding politics as an enabler for sustainable tourism development is crucial.
Politics as an enabler for sustainability
A study from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, in 2014, showed that, “There is a gap between the conceptual understanding of sustainable tourism development and the implementation of tourism sustainability. The intellectually appealing concept of sustainable tourism had little practical application. Its practical implementation remains difficult. It seems that this problem could be reduced if the three-pillar sustainability concept is expanded to include some of the ‘enablers’ of efficient sustainability implementation used in business and destination practices.”
These enablers as reported include “political support and power, critical mass, consensus, environmental education, awareness and ethics”. Hence, these enablers play a serious role in achieving sustainable and responsible tourism development.
Triple bottom line
In a country like The Bahamas, the environmental pillar is fundamental. The fragility and sensitivity of the environment in this region can make or break the tourism industry. As in many countries, tourism is mostly held responsible for pollution (e.g., water, air, noise and litter) and for the destruction of the natural environment and some man-made environments. Indicators such as preservation of the environment; landscape appearance improvement; air, water and waste pollution; green area destruction and ecological awareness are important. Nonetheless, perceived tourism impacts on the natural environment are positively related to opposition to tourism. Thus, the role of the enablers (politics) is important to oppose or support tourism development that has a positive long-term benefit for the country.
Next comes the people; the socio-cultural pillar includes both the social and cultural environment. As they quite often overlap, they are examined as a single entity. For the socio-cultural pillar, indicators that can be observed include the availability and development of public utilities, restaurants, shopping and entertainment outlets, parks and recreational areas. Further, tourism can also boom when the local community sees the benefit — that is, when the production and sales of local products are encouraging; there are more business opportunities for the locals; the quality of education and public service is enhanced; and cultural activities, especially amongst the youth, are encouraged. A tourism destination can also be destroyed socio-culturally due to exploitation of the locals, traffic congestion, crowding, petty crimes, conflicts between the hosts and the tourists, lack of preservation of local heritage/culture and over-development or over-commercialization of local attractions. Similarly, the role of the enablers (politics) is important to create the positive perceptions of tourism on the socio-cultural environment, which will result in positive tourism support.
Finally, for the economic pillar, suitable indicators must be used to measure the diverse impact generated by tourism. This may include indicators such as the standard of living, employment, investments, tax revenue, price increase of goods and services in touristic areas and development of infrastructure and other industries. Hence, again, the role of the enablers (politics) is critical as the residents’ perception of the economy has a positive effect to support tourism, where more positive perceptions result in support and negative perceptions result in opposition.
The political environment and destination governance
Political environment is defined as “the actions taken by the government, which potentially affect the daily business activities of any business or company”. So, in this context, this terminology does not refer to political parties or systems (although both might be relevant to tourism development), but instead to political power, leadership, structures, mechanisms and strategies or policies for the implementation of sustainable tourism development. Hence, the “political pillar” is becoming an important equation in the sustainable tourism planning for most developing nations.
In a study in 2004 in Europe, political implementation of the sustainability concept was emphasized in successful destinations. Ten years later, a similar sustainability monitoring study by the European Commission suggested similar findings. The findings confirmed the importance of local governance, strategic planning and the understanding of the political environment in steering destinations toward a successful sustainable tourism development.
Compared to the other three-pillars of sustainability, the political dimension is different and more difficult to manage. The focus of the main three-pillars (economy-social-environment) is tourism impacts, whereas the political element is defined more as a necessary enabler for the implementation of sustainable strategies. It is more complex as it involves coordination and cooperation among numerous actors. If the governance is effective (less political), there may not be much issue in developing sustainable tourism. Effective governance can only happen if good mechanisms are put in place for the successful coordination of collective actions.
As far as The Bahamas is concerned, as mentioned by another columnist, Zhivargo Laing, in his April 25, 2018 op-ed, “There is no debate about whether there is corruption in The Bahamas or not, if corruption is defined as ‘abuse of office for private gain’. In both public and private sectors in our country, I think we can be certain that there is and has always been some measure of corruption present”.
Unethical behavior in the performance of duties as a senator, a minister, a member of Parliament and a politician in general, can impact any nation. History has shown that nations that have political instability have always struggled to govern effectively. Sustainable tourism development is just one aspect of the development that needs to happen in this archipelagic nation that relies on the equilibrium of the triple bottom line (economy-social-environment). Without political maturity and political will, there will always be a challenge in carrying out sustainable and responsible tourism business in The Bahamas.
Read part two of this article next month, on the learnings from findings of the survey in Slovenia on the political environment and destination governance on sustainable tourism development.
• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean of graduate studies and research and a professor of sustainable tourism at the University of The Bahamas.