Island Tourism and Sustainable Development: Interview with Richard Butler, Strathclyde University

Island Tourism – Sustainable Perspectives

Islands are the most vulnerable and fragile of tourism destinations and will experience even more pressure as the combined impacts of economic, social and environmental change accelerate in the future. In order to understand the process of island tourism development, response to change and challenges and their journey to sustainability, the 2011 CABI book “Island Tourism – Sustainable Perspectives” (Edited by J Carlsen, Professor of Sustainable Tourism, Curtin University of Technology, Australia, R W Butler, Professor of International Tourism, Strathclyde University, Glasgow, UK) provides insights and instruction on topics including social, cultural, environmental and economic aspects of island tourism. It contains essential information for policymakers, planners, researchers, managers and operators within the tourism industry. Learn more & order this book from CABI.

*Through TIES partnership with CABI, special discounts (20~% off) are available to TIES members on all online purchases of CABI publications. Please go to Member Center to access the discount codes, or contact for information on this and other TIES member benefits.

Interview with Professor Butler
TIES: What makes island destinations particularly vulnerable to environmental changes, as compared to other types of tourism destinations?

Prof. Butler: In one sense, they are no more vulnerable than any other area, but often because their physical environment is relatively or absolutely small, they may have little margin for absorbing significant impacts – environmental as well as social and economic (because of small populations and economies). Additionally, some isolated destinations such as the Galapagos may have developed unique ecosystems which would be highly vulnerable to insertions of exotic species, or which may have populations not used to human contact (actions, diseases etc). There is also the issue that while many tourists and others anticipate islands – particularly remote ones – to be “untouched,” any changes are perceived as problematic. As with any ecosystem that has a limited range of species present (high arctic, for example), a loss or significant change in any single element can have a drastic effect on all other elements in the ecosystem. Some islands fall into such a category, even those not in extreme latitudes.

TIES: How can visitors and local operators act to mitigate the impacts of economic, social and environmental changes on island destinations?

Prof. Butler: Some management actions are fairly obvious, such as those practiced in the Galapagos and some national parks elsewhere. For example, no food allowed with visitors, no fires or smoking, no litter left behind, restrictions on access (normally restricted to designated trails only), no physical contact with animals or plants, no collecting, no removal of items. Numbers are generally the major issue but almost no place is willing to limit capacities when it comes down to the crunch; instead, so called “capacity levels” are raised regularly in order to allow more visitors. Limits on numbers and the size of cruise boats at any one time (as Bermuda has done) is one step. Limits on accommodation development, airport capacity, and harbor capacity are somewhat easy options to make polices for.

However, the real question is whether policy will be implemented. Islands have great possibilities of limiting numbers, and controlling actions and movement if they wish to do so. Most seem to wish to do so but never do because of alternative viewpoints relating to more senior levels of government and the private sector. Bear in mind, however, that many small islands also seem to want as many tourists as they can get, so local control is not necessarily the answer. In the case of national parks, it is quite often a senior “absent” government that might institute such arrangements, sometimes in the face of local opposition to restrictions on tourist numbers.

TIES: What advice do you have for tourism stakeholders (planners, researchers, operators etc.) in island destinations for areas to focus on in regards to education and program development (ie: critical issues)?

Prof. Butler: Decide what is really important, both for local people and for outsiders. If priorities can be established, then these can be focused on, people can be informed of what is important and why (key species, key habitats, etc.) and how they may be safeguarded. People need to be informed of potential or actual threats and what results could be, as well as how threats might be neutralized. Information is key – both to local people and from them, and to and from all other stakeholders. Trust is important. Without it, evidence is likely to be disregarded in favor of traditional biases and beliefs. Some of these traditional beliefs might be true, but some of which could be terribly wrong and inappropriate.

For example, overfishing or overuse of resources which might have been acceptable in the context of a much reduced population with less frequent use technology half a century ago, but which are not longer suitable although there may be longstanding support for such actions. Care needs to be taken in putting forward new approaches so that they can gain local support. This requires a clear understanding of what is being proposed, why it is being proposed, and how it will work. All of this is education after a fashion.

Above all, stakeholders must sort out the really key issues, problems, and processes and concentrate on these without getting sidetracked by almost irrelevant but highly publicized media issues. For example, it is easy to get worked up about a hotel keeping its lights on on a beach at night where turtles are hatching and might get confused, although a more serious issue might be a harbor extension for local fishermen which could result in changed erosion patterns and total disappearance of the beach at issue.

TIES: Please share case studies and examples that you find particularly interesting and are reflective of the changes occurring in island tourism today.

Prof. Butler: Probably cruise tourism, as this is bringing large numbers of tourists to islands that had not previously experience such numbers ever before. In some cases this seems an easy option; few infrastructure facilities need to be provided, and boats can anchor off shore and transport visitors to the location. Pressures can be very high for very short periods of time with limited returns in terms of employment, expenditure, and lasting benefits, and every port of call is vulnerable because they have little or no role in decision making about whether the cruise ship should return another year or another voyage. This is not to say that cruise tourism is a bad thing, but I think it is symptomatic of a number of issues including vulnerability, lack of control, concentration of pressure and impacts, intensity of effects, minimal per capita expenditure, and a false impression of visitor numbers being maintained.

Although not specifically a tourist issue, increasing numbers of islands are becoming the focus of development (oil and gas, defense etc.). This has implications for tourism by increasing the visibility of islands through reference in the media, and by provision of infrastructure. For example, the Falkland Islands are much easier to visit now, following the post 1980 increased defense presence there. Similarly, the Shetland Islands have benefited enormously from oil infrastructure developments in terms of access and communication improvements, which have had a positive impact on tourism development.

Interview conducted by Lindsay Milich, July 2011

Prof Richard ButlerProfessor Richard Butler was educated at Nottingham University and the University of Glasgow (PhD Geography 1973), and spent thirty years at the University of Western Ontario in Canada as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Geography, and then the University of Surrey, where he was Professor of Tourism from 1997 to 2005. He is currently Emeritus Professor of International Tourism in the Strathclyde Business School, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. He has published a large number of journal articles, fourteen books on tourism and many chapters in other books. His fields of interest are the development process of tourist destinations the impacts of tourism, carrying capacity and sustainability, and tourism in remote areas and islands.

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