This is a response to Marlies Haider’s article: Ecotourism – a suitable tourism development strategy for the Solomon Islands?
Tourism research is a bizarre, often opportunistic phenomenon. New research themes suddenly pop up, frequently sparked by an event or media attention. Few years, several articles, theses, and two edited volumes later, the topic again vanishes. A couple of years ago, ‘last chance tourism’ was such a topic, and I hereby plead guilty in contributing a co-authored book chapter to it (Lamers, Eijgelaar, & Amelung, 2012). In the wake of some tour operators urging consumers to visit destinations like Antarctica, as they might disappear soon (in this case as the result of climate change), last chance tourism was defined as “a niche tourism market where tourists explicitly seek vanishing landscapes or seascapes, and/or disappearing natural and/or social heritage” (Lemelin, Dawson, Stewart, Maher, & Lueck, 2010, p. 478). So, not only tourism research is opportunistic.
Why am I writing this, when Marlies Haider’s thesis is about ecotourism, which has been with us for three decades, and a research topic ever since? Well, the main shortcoming in the way ecotourism is defined and handled, is its sole focus on local or destination sustainability. Global consequences are ignored. Ecotourists are generally well-to-do western folks that need to fly long-haul to get to their ecotourism destination, hence contributing significantly to their personal carbon footprint. A return flight from the Netherlands to the Solomons will easily ‘earn’ you three tons of CO2. An average Dutch citizen will have a very hard time producing that amount by a full year of car driving. Actually, it is close to what the average global citizen produces overall in one year.
There are two related reasons why excluding the ‘non-local’ issues are problematic here. First, tourism CO2 emissions are growing fast, and will eventually ‘clash’ with the goals set in the Paris Agreement on mitigating climate change in 2015. That is bad news for tourism, as the impacts associated with not achieving the Paris target are not in the self-interest of the tourism sector (Scott, Gössling, Hall, & Peeters, 2016). Second, for the Solomon Islands, this is extra painful, as it is one of the states affected by sea-level rise, wherein climate change may play a role (and may do so more in future). Some islands have already disappeared and coastal erosion is predicted to become an extreme problem, possibly leading to relocation of inhabitants (Simon et al., 2016). Is that a stable environment where considerable resources should be used to develop a hitherto virtually non-existing activity which probably contributes to the problem? It is a good example of tourism’s environmental paradox (Williams & Ponsford, 2009).
Marlies Haider’s thesis is a thorough analysis of the pros and cons of developing ecotourism in the Solomons, with a good emphasis on community involvement. I do not blame Marlies Haider for omitting local and global environmental issues, but rather tourism and tourism educational institutes, who appear to be largely focused on the destination, and on growth. The fact that big players like UNWTO handle tourism as a perfect, almost non-disputed instrument to fight poverty alleviation and aid developing states, notably small island developing states, does not help. I cannot present you with a good economic alternative for the Solomons here, but in view of the above I would argue against developing ‘last chance’ ecotourism to these islands for the moment – to put it a little dramatically. Tourism development today needs more extensive, holistic analyses, including both local and global environmental and societal issues, and ‘no’ should also be an option.
At BUAS’ Centre for Sustainable Tourism and Transport (www.cstt.nl), we try take this holistic approach. Our main focus is on knowledge development of tourism’s contribution to climate change, and how to mitigate this. The latter is only possible in absolute terms when tourist behaviour is changed, i.e. less flying and lower distances travelled. Marlies Haider’s thesis issues are closely related to a paper where we analyse the implications of reducing travel distance for least developing countries. We show there will be both winners and losers (also in developed countries), and that there are realistic opportunities for compensating those countries losing out (Peeters & Eijgelaar, 2014).