Political will in sustainable and responsible tourism development, pt. 2
[Note: The main discussion in this article was adapted from: Mihalič, T., Šegota, T., Cvelbar, L.K. & Kuščer, K. (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]
In part one of my article (see January 25, 2019 issue), I stressed the importance of the government’s role in managing the political environment and destination governance on sustainable tourism development in a country. As discussed, 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.
The study from University of Ljubljana in Slovenia in 2014 showed that the three-pillar sustainability concept should be expanded to include some of the ‘enablers’ of efficient sustainability implementation used in business and destination practices, which include political support and power, critical mass, consensus, environmental education and awareness, and also ethics. As promised in my previous article I will discuss on the learnings from findings of the survey in Slovenia on the political environment and destination governance on sustainable tourism development.
The main learnings from Slovenia
The findings from this study showed that sustainable development depends on the ability to ensure cooperation and coordination among diverse stakeholders, which often have divergent interests, beliefs, priorities and sometimes even a hidden agenda. This creates an initial difficulty when it comes to the governance of sustainable tourism since it possesses a tremendous challenge to find a balance among stakeholders, who are usually dispersed over the national, regional and organizational levels as well as across many different sectors and policy domains.
The Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) and Free National Movement (FNM) have built the modern Bahamas for all its successes and failings. The checks and balances between the ruling party and the opposition is critical for democracy to work. Nonetheless, their cooperation is also critical to govern the country efficiently and effectively. If both the government and the opposition constantly oppose or discredit one another just to win the future voters’ hearts, then all developmental projects, including sustainable tourism project, will never get a fair chance to be executed and benefited by the community at large.
Proper governance of sustainable tourism is critical in integrating sustainable policies that acknowledge the socio-cultural, natural and economic environmental aspects of policy development. Hence, a higher degree of community involvement in the development of sustainable tourism leads to higher support for tourism. In The Bahamas, this is evident with many projects being questioned for the lack of transparency and effective (not selective) local community participation.
The political environment and destination governance are critical ‘enablers’ of the implementation of sustainable tourism development and include some important issues, such as cooperation among different stakeholders, consensus and fulfillment of their interests. The assurance of the presence of a proper strategic framework as well as a policy to maintain and further develop the quality and harmony of the community’s life in general are certainly some key issues that relate to effective and successful sustainable tourism development and implementation.
The Slovenia study has shown that the more tourism is seen to benefit the socio-cultural, natural and economic environment (in that order), the more residents will be satisfied and embrace tourism in their communities, and vice versa. In this light, residents were observed to be the happiest with tourism’s ability and power to protect the local culture, improve public services and provide more public spaces and recreational opportunities for locals (and not just for the visitors or tourists). How different or similar is this scenario in The Bahamas?
Further, the perceptions of a negative environmental impact will reduce the residents’ satisfaction with tourism, as seen in the many projects on Grand Bahama and also the recent Lighthouse Point project on Eleuthera. Physical impacts on the environment are more distinct and are the most impacted, for example, waste pollution, water pollution and also aesthetic pollution (also known as visual pollution where the impacts of pollution are such that it impairs one’s ability to enjoy a view).
The residents’ negative perception of the economic impact of tourism also reflected negatively on their satisfaction levels. The issues of over-dependence on tourism like on Grand Bahama, the prioritization of tourism over other industries and the perception that tourism benefits only those who are employed in tourism, can seriously impact the bigger agenda of moving the nation toward sustainable tourism development in The Bahamas. Hence, the role of the political environment on tourism and how it is perceived by the community is critical.
The study has also indicated that the relationship between the political environment and a resident’s satisfaction with tourism is fully mediated by both their socio-cultural and natural environments. On the other hand, the economic environment failed to mediate this relationship. From this study, one could therefore argue that political governance can influence the satisfaction level of residents by improving their socio-cultural living conditions and the natural quality of their place of residence, but cannot affect it through the economic environment solely. The recent debacle on Disney Cruise Line’s the Lighthouse Point project is a case in point.
Although, the tourism industry (the economic environment), has the power to create tourism development and growth, it also has an interest in the use and consumption of the natural environment as natural resources attract visitors and constitute an integral part of the supply of tourism. When this happens, the community normally has a distributive power over its natural resources, such as the use of its environmental resources, waste management or water and air protection, urban planning and others.
Over the past decade, the most important source of developing countries’ woes is not their exposure to external shocks or natural disasters like hurricanes, but their own unique problems involving structural economic weaknesses arising from political instability and the lack of political will to undertake difficult reforms. This reformation is critical in the sustainable development of a country. In a fragile archipelagic nation like The Bahamas, the fragility is further amplified. Sustainability implies a shift in power from those who traditionally had a major say in tourism development (the industry and its profit orientation) to all stakeholders of a destination. Thus, it demands the involvement of all of its stakeholders, a critical mass, consensus and collaborative action. This include the government and the opposition as well.
As a community and as a tourist destination, just like the study in Slovenia, The Bahamas requires a stronger engagement and collaboration of various organizations when it comes to effective tourism development and planning. Tourism development should recognize and encourage a higher level of community satisfaction. The community should always be the most important stakeholders of any destination, in order to be sustainable. Thus, this calls for a modification of the destination governance system in order to effectively develop and apply policies for tourism based on the coordination and cooperation of all of its stakeholders.
In order to secure a higher level of coordination within the tourism industry itself, strong governance must overcome the obstacles of a fragmented industry where there are constant battles between the government and the opposition, and also the trade unions. Local community and residents’ support for tourism can be influenced by the political environment and destination governance that are well developed.
To conclude, The Bahamas is certainly in a critical period as it tries to recreate the tourism prosperity of the 1990s. Nonetheless, the reality is that the country has to compete more strategically and successfully in the international markets by understanding what the modern tourist expects in a destination. Responsible sustainable tourism is certainly one of the expectations. The political will is critical if the country is to become a model sustainably developed country. A knowledgeable and forceful leadership like Singapore, may well be the way for The Bahamas in its quest to take its rightful position as a model sustainable destination for the world to emulate.
• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean of graduate studies and research and a professor of sustainable tourism at the University of The Bahamas.