Sustainable tourism and the research it requires
This column was first published on May 17, 2019.
In The Bahamas, government loves to say that it is exploring the next best thing. One of those next best things is sustainable tourism.
Many have worked around this area for many years, but little recognition has been give to them. Much of the research produced in fact shows how complicated the term “sustainable tourism” is, and further how complicated and indeed fraught with problems it is in the Bahamian context. This is a three-part series on the local reality of sustainable tourism and the nationally conducted and produced research that informs it.
Firstly, we must recognize that national research is being done.
During the preparation of the National Development Plan under the last administration, a team of researchers from the then College of The Bahamas were tasked with providing a SWATT analysis and a state of affairs of various areas in the country; one of those was Out Island development and another was how tourism could be made sustainable, especially on the Out Islands.
The research clearly showed that avoiding large-scale projects that engulfed entire islands and/or enveloped whole populations and areas or barred island communities from natural resources and coastal livelihoods through gating off these areas was a serious problem. These kinds of resort developments replicated problems already present on New Providence and did little to improve the local living conditions of the people. The research was ignored and those projects have proliferated. However, the same research has been repackaged by other parties and used without acknowledgement of the original work.
Over the last 10 years, and even more, a huge amount of research has been conducted by local researchers and academics as well as environmentalists but this has mostly been shelved and/or handed over to international persons who have then been contracted by the government or national agencies to re-do the same work provided by the local researchers. They have used said information without travelling to the country or knowing the spaces and places they are planning for. Local researchers would be paid pennies for what would be repackaged and rebranded as international research and sold to the nation for thousands. This we know already from other areas.
The research gathered during the National Development Plan phase, though, had been prepared and submitted with a great deal of time and consideration as well as work. Government often proved uninterested and often simply resistant to providing much of the information for the government-commissioned studies. In fact, the process of sourcing information from agencies was often so convoluted and cumbersome that special requests had to be made between ministries. It seemed that ministries worked for different governments and against each other.
None of this supports what the UNWTO referred to as sustainable development or tourism. This label is problematic in this context because there is little that is sustainable according to the UN’s “Making Tourism more sustainable: A guide for policy makers” (2005) and UNWTO’S “Challenges and opportunities for Small Island Developing States” (2012).
UNWTO expressed, sustainable tourism can be 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.”
Leakage: a problem in The Bahamas as little of any of the tourism brand or resorts are owned by Bahamians. This is a problem as little of the money “created” through tourism actually remains in the country. As most resorts are owned through the government’s FDI scheme encouraged through various pieces of legislation such as, but not limited to, the Hotels Encouragement Act, the Family Island Development Act, the Industries Encouragement Act, the International Persons Landholding Act and the Commercial Enterprises Act, all provide for input and withdrawal of services and their resultant income.
Without restraint, which has recently been witnessed with the heads of agreement between Disney and the government of The Bahamas to develop Lighthouse Point, which basically provides slightly more than 100 local jobs. Of course, these projects provide other jobs, but they are not reserved for “locals”. However, even when areas are reserved for locals, resorts manage to bypass this requirement by creating in-house or subcontracted service providers who have one foot in and one foot out of the local economy, to provide the caveated areas.
So, the research demonstrated clearly that large FDI projects were not sustainable because they became a drain on local environmental and socio-cultural resources while providing the promise of jobs without necessarily delivering on the same.
Sustainable tourism also means the environment will be protected and preserved so that future generations will benefit. As clearly evidenced in the Bimini Bay case, the natural environment has been destroyed to provide for a built environment that is often out of scale with and beyond the carrying capacity of many small islands and their communities.
Sustainable tourism also requires continuing monitoring and evaluation and the research demonstrated that this was not done. It requires strict policies and their enforcement for all manner of change and development from environmental to social as well as the impact of large-scale development lifeways. These policies have usually not been implemented, and in cases where they have been, they have simply not been enforced. Sustainable tourism development requires that policy be enforced.
The structure and infrastructure of the state
As the research illustrated, government controlled and managed all development and Family or Out Island development was often controlled and managed by central government in Nassau while local government recommendations were ignored. Often, local government was unaware of planning or development until after the fact. Local communities had little to no say in who delivered services, which was often decided either by resort operators or central government.
The problems conducting research locally
Research is extremely expensive and time-consuming and usually requires extensive cooperation and a great deal of (wo)manpower.
Cooperation, even when initial capital has been invested through grants and other funding, has usually not been given.
Further, research and development require a robust system of intellectual property and legal recognition of people’s rights over their material. This does not exist locally, and is in part one serious hurdle to WTO membership. Whereas intellectual property is protected under the WTO, especially the TRIPS agreement, locally, it is ignored and used indiscriminately, without recognizing the origins or sources of the work. So, as we produce studies on the feasibility of gated or enclave developments on Mayaguana, for example, the same are used by international people bypassing local researchers. Institutions that “own” the research do not govern it in a sustainable or ethical fashion; the results are co-opted for capitalist expansion of some pockets in the community. In layman’s terms – the information is stolen.
As little regard is given to the socio-cultural and socio-economic impact of tourism development on local communities other than to provide low-level jobs in the short term, this cannot be referred to as sustainable tourism. The environmental impact of large and mega resorts and island-wide gated communities that erase local communities and put massive strain on water, electricity and food resources, not to mention waste management and environmental pollution, are ignored. This again occurs in favor of a few getting richer at the expense of many.
The current FDI-controlled structure of the Bahamian market and economy does not lend to what is known as sustainable tourism. The leakage of resources and capital completely undermine the possibility of sustainable tourism. However, these will be explored further in part two with a focus on Out Island development.
Ultimately, the national infrastructure provides that those who conduct research are often abused by a system of weak or nonexistent intellectual property rights, poor ethical structures and a state that willingly undermines national development for its own interests. Partisan politics also further erodes the potential for true sustainable development without even focusing on sustainable tourism development.
• Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett is a professor at the University of The Bahamas.