Warm-water small island destinations

Over the past month, I was invited by one of the leading tourism journals to review a new edited book entitled “Tourism Management in Warm-water Island Destinations”. The book was excellently edited by Dr. Michelle McLeod, of the University of the West Indies, and Dr. Robertico Croes, of the University of Central Florida. I would like to highlight salient points in this interesting book, published by the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI), which are critical to tourism management in warm-water island destinations like The Bahamas.

Firstly, what do we mean by “warm-water island destinations”? As indicated by McLeod and Croes, “Warm-water islands are a cohesive group of islands, distinguished by their geography and remoteness, history as former colonial territories and dependence on external stakeholders for their economic and social development”, and “they are located between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn at 23.5º north and south of the equator, respectively”. Thus, islands that fall within this tropical zone include those in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. So, The Bahamas is certainly a warm-water small island destination. There are salient contrasts between the ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ versions of island tourism. Managing tourism in these two types of distinct destinations is different.

What do you get in ‘cold-water’ islands? Open water is not appealing, as its temperature may even be life-threatening (not always but in most of the destinations); thus their beaches may not be accessible; whale bones, rather than seashells, may haunt the shore; the general setting of the destination is more emancipating and the body is invigorated. Where it exists, it is a place where the tourism industry is always overshadowed by nature and culture; the environment is well-respected; souvenirs are indigenous and expensive; the natives or indigenous people may no longer exist or it may be difficult to assess their expression because they are covered from head to foot in warm clothing; there is sound strategic management with limited civilian ‘buy in’; low populations and an absence of pluralism in political life.

Typically, in ‘warm-water’ islands, it may be the opposite. The setting is almost oppressive; the body lethargic; the obligation to play tourist and go through the expected motions is strong; the tourism industry dominates society at large; space is at a premium; staged authenticity is rampant – evident in the cheap nature of most souvenirs; the natives can only be obligingly happy; there is excessive heat, noise, food and drink; and much of the activity takes place in or near a water body.

Hence, tourism management in warm-water destinations like The Bahamas has its own challenges that are not typical of cold-water small island destinations. Some warm-water islands are trying to follow blindly the model for tourism development that worked well in cold-water islands, with mixed results.

Small island developing states

Nonetheless, it is important to understand what small island destinations are all about and their typical challenges that are also experienced in The Bahamas. These challenges, if not dealt with, will impact the tourism industry of The Bahamas.

Small island developing states (SIDS) are a distinct group of maritime developing countries facing specific economic, social and environmental vulnerabilities. SIDS tend to share similar sustainable development challenges, which can include small but growing populations; limited resources; remoteness; being surrounded by oceans; susceptibility to natural disasters; vulnerability to external shocks; excessive dependence on international trade and fragile environments. SIDS are spread mainly throughout the Caribbean, Pacific and also in the African, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea (see Table 1).

There are more than 50 island countries and territories across the globe that are a part of SIDS. They make up five percent of the world’s population and are home to more than 50 million people. Tourism contributes more than 40 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of SIDS, with agriculture contributing less than 20 percent. Many SIDS are facing competition for land between tourism and agriculture. Thus, agritourism may be the way forward for these SIDS (as was discussed in my previous column on November 30, 2018).

Most SIDS are compounded by natural hazards due to their small export volume, fragile ecosystems, international trade dependence, high food import bill and their vulnerability to economic shocks. Further, there are challenges in terms of their insular and coastal states resulting in limited product, market access and market diversification as well as a dependency on food and fuel imports. SIDS’ remoteness from the market results in high economic vulnerability; high energy and infrastructure cost; limited resources to transition to renewable energy; high cost of doing business; difficulty in accessing and moving up value chains; small domestic markets; expensive transport and communication costs and limited scale to compete in the global economy. Addressing environmental sustainability is of paramount importance in SIDS as they:

• are impacted by climate change;

• are vulnerable to sea level rise and natural disasters like hurricanes and tropical storms;

• have inadequate supplies of fresh water and land needed to manage waste;

• have a fragile biodiversity.

Challenges in The Bahamas

The Bahamas is also facing all of the above challenges and many more. Accurate information about the state of the nation (economically, environmentally and socially) with regard to sustainability is not made available to decision-makers. Analytics on sustainable data are lacking. Further, unregulated developments create increased pressure on finite resources. Proper land use, planning and the prohibition of development close to the coastline needs further scrutiny. There are still varied and sporadic approaches to Family Island development. Management of solid waste and the air quality resulting from the burning landfill further impact this small island nation.

There seems to be only a few widespread efforts to generate alternate sources of energy, recycling of resources and buildings with proper insulation that can withstand unpredictable climatic conditions. Despite being in a vulnerable climatic zone, there seems to be no change, or insignificant change, in the lifestyle of the people in dealing with the severity of the climate. There is also a rapid depletion of marine, land and water resources across the archipelago. The decline of fish stocks, the conch population and the marine environment, due to unsustainable fish farming or illegal fishing, have impacted the country.

Moving forward

As identified by McLeod, it is critical to understand how to improve the performance of tourism, as there are island states that are not benefiting from tourism. She further adds that, although the Caribbean has a dominant tourism industry across several islands, the benefits being derived, particularly by locals, have been limited. A research agenda is needed in redeveloping a Caribbean tourism identity, access and profitability, to improve the fortunes of Caribbean tourism. All strategies developed must consider how destinations can be contained, preserved and managed by addressing the triple bottom line – economic, social and environmental.

Typical challenges facing the nation must be addressed with regard to planning which include:

(1) Inadequate infrastructure, resulting in the continuous focus on increasing tourism numbers, rather than a focus on yield;

(2) Lack of long-term sustainable strategic planning and thus the failure of policymakers to manage growth within social and ecological limits;

(3) Environmental awareness and political will of the government;

(4) Copycat strategies that do not always work in all destinations;

(5) Economic priority over social and environmental concerns, resulting in a nation in debt to foreign development banks and foreign companies in order to build these superstructures;

(6) Limited economic development due to size, natural and physical resources; and

(7) Foreign ownership and resulting economic leakages can paralyze a nation where tourism development is massively influenced by foreign investors and by the necessity to import goods and services to satisfy tourists. According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study, these leakages can be as staggering as 80 percent.

In conclusion, better tourism planning and development is needed for SIDS like The Bahamas to sustain its position as a leading tourism getaway in the Caribbean and enhance the quality of living for the local community and residents. Implementation of sustainable policies, commitment to long-term planning, growing local ownership and diversification away from an over-dependence on tourism is critical for the development of the country. The recent opening of the GTR Campbell Small Island Sustainability Research Complex at the University of The Bahamas is certainly the way forward for the country to pool its resources to be more focused in developing a research agenda with sustainability as the premise for all sectors, including responsible tourism. Responsible tourism will limit tourism’s ‘footprint’ on warm-water islands and allow for other activities to flourish.

• 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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