In Pursuit of Sustainable Tourism – Notes from a Small Island Nation

by Phil Cumming on November 29, 2015

Several years ago my father in-law set the wheels in motion for a big family meet up in 2015. It would be the first time the New Zealand side of my family had all holidayed together in well over a decade. The question was where should this momentous occasion take place? We debated the relative merits of various destinations ranging from SE Asia to the west coast of the US for some months. In doing his own research my father in-law discovered that Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) were seeking volunteers for short and longer-term capacity and capability building assignments in Samoa. He decided to apply and got accepted into the programme.

So naturally the debate was settled and Samoa it was and we all descended on him for a few weeks in July! And apart from one or two hiccups we all had an amazing experience. I also found out that this small island nation wanted to be seen as a leader in sustainable tourism – interest piqued, I wanted to find out more.

Of course I, probably like many Brits, knew absolutely nothing about Samoa – aside from knowing it was in Polynesia of course. Up until this point the only Polynesian nation I had any real awareness of was New Zealand (yes, though to be fair I’ve only just learnt that NZ is technically part of Polynesia too!). And in 2008, I had supported a discussion on climate change with a spirited bunch of athletes from Tonga during the Beijing Olympic Games – but I don’t think that particularly counts…

A very remote part of the world

Samoa is in a very remote part of the world. It’s an independent nation located in the Pacific, south of the equator, about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. Just getting there is not particularly straightforward and is pretty time-consuming – the main gateways these days being Australia and New Zealand. Coming from the UK it took us well over 35 hours to get there.

It has a mostly tropical climate, with a rainy season (November to April) and a drier season (May to October). Its population is just over 194,000 and is made up of 10 islands – two of which (Savai’i and Upolu) make up more than 99% of the land area. Coral reefs surround most of the islands providing beautiful turquoise lagoons in which to swim or snorkel.

The Samoan Government’s long-term goal is ‘improved quality of life for all’ and the main theme of their 2012 – 2016 Strategy for the Development of Samoa is ‘boosting productivity for sustainable development’. This sets out a number of key strategic outcomes including sustainable management of natural resources, strengthening social cohesion, investing in renewable energy sources, and promoting Samoa as an attractive tourist destination whilst achieving sustainable growth in tourism.

Travel is big business – in fact it’s one of the world’s biggest industries with tourists collectively spending trillions of dollars each year. As with other Pacific island states, tourism is increasingly important for Samoa. Traditionally, it has been dependent on development aid (it receives significant aid contributions from New Zealand, Australia, China and Japan as well as the EU and from a UN pot of money related to climate change issues), family remittances from overseas (which has been impacted by the global recession), agriculture and fishing – typical exports being coconut oil and cream, copra, fish, beer and some timber. Tourism has become very important for growth, foreign currency and employment due to a decline in agriculture and fisheries. And since the late 1990s, the number of tourists has been increasing steadily and tourism now accounts for 20-25% of Samoa’s GDP.

The idea that sustainability should be factored into tourism development is not new. Over 30 years ago, Jost Kripendorf wrote about tourisms role as a potential burden on cultures, economies and the environment and more sustainable forms of tourism need to be considered.

Despite over three decades of supposed action though, in reality very little in the way of practical action seems to have been accomplished to help move the sustainable tourism agenda forward. As to whether the current mass tourism model can ever be truly sustainable is also debatable. So how has Samoa been tackling it?

An early adopter

Samoa has in fact been recognised by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) as a leader in sustainable tourism practices. As far back as the mid-1990s it established a National Ecotourism Programme and Samoan Ecotourism Network to promote village-based ecotourism, support conservation efforts, and provide funding for beach fales (or huts) to rent out to visitors.

Fast-forward to present day and last year Samoa was the first South Pacific destination to complete the GSTC’s Early Adopter Program applying the GSTC Criteria for Destinations and only the second destination in the world to do so at a national level.

This year Samoa even made it onto the World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations list. Each year, Ethical Traveller reviews nations in the developing world and selects the 10 that are doing the most impressive job of promoting human rights, preserving the environment, supporting social welfare, and standards of animal welfare. Ethical Traveller also provided some insights into why Samoa made it onto this year’s list as well as some points for improvement and reasons to visit.

And Samoa aspires to go further. In their Samoa Tourism Sector Plan 2014-2019 the Samoan Tourist Authority (STA) has set itself the goal that by 2019, Samoa would:

  • Have a growing tourism sector; and
  • Be seen as the leading Pacific destination for sustainable tourism.

Over the last 20 years or so we’ve seen the emergence of ‘ecotourism’ and ‘responsible tourism’. These terms still linger today and on occasion have unfortunately been victims of ‘term hijacking’ with little or no substance behind the claims being made.

Tourism is also seen by many as playing a key role in developing economies and the alleviation of poverty. It has been linked to the high-level policy ideals of the UN Millennium Development Goals and is now seen as an opportunity for implementing the new UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Definitions of sustainable tourism range from the tourist-centric, to economically focussed points of view (that don’t necessarily consider natural or cultural resource demands), through to industry-wide schemes for tourism enterprises (Green Globe, Green Key, and so on…). Whilst, the impacts of tourism are of course increasingly global, the main focus has also tended to be on the destination (or local level).

The STA’s plan adopts the UNEP’s and the World Tourism Organization’s all embracing definition of sustainable tourism expressed simply (!) 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.’

In summary, the plan’s stated sustainable tourism principles are to ensure:

  • Tourism development makes optimal use of environmental resources it relies on;
  • Socio-cultural authenticity of host communities is respected and cultural heritage and traditional values are conserved; and
  • Socio-economic benefits are fairly distributed to all stakeholders, such as stable employment and income-earning opportunities

It also identifies a number of priority actions which seek to address both the demand and supply side issues which impact industry growth and sustainability. Over the first two years (i.e. through to 2016) there is a focus on high priority actions. These include introducing and monitoring further sustainable tourism indicators in line with the GSTC’s Destination Criteria, capacity building plans for STA staff, and a broad based community awareness programme.

The world’s magnifying glass

Whilst most people understand the concept idealistically, the reality is that sustainability is pretty difficult to (properly) operationalise in practice. Not helped by the fact that in the case of tourism there are clearly multiple actors involved too – tourists, tourism enterprises, host communities, governments, etc – all with very unique (albeit interdependent) roles to play.

And Samoa faces a number of significant sustainability challenges including limited resources, lack of infrastructure and other development constraints, environmental vulnerabilities, increasing human population, and human rights and social welfare issues. In fact, at last years Third International Conference of Small Island Developing States, Ban Ki-moon likened nations like Samoa to a magnifying glass – in that when we look through the lens we see the vulnerabilities we all face.

Tourism is both climate dependent and weather sensitive. Like much of the Pacific, the impact of climate change is a significant issue for Samoa. Its vulnerability is also almost completely detached from its contribution to climate change, which though rising, accounts for significantly less than 1% of global emissions.

Samoa has a long history of extreme weather events, the most recent of which was Cyclone Evan in 2012, widely considered to be the worst cyclone to hit the nation since the early 1990s. The death toll reached 14 (after rescuers abandoned the search for 10 missing sailors) and damage from the storm amounted to over US $200 million. And climate scientists predict that severe cyclones are likely to become more commonplace throughout the region. Rising sea levels are also a big threat by exacerbating coastal erosion and causing loss of land and property and other infrastructure.

The coral reefs are apparently not particularly in the best of shape as a result of high winds and tidal surges, infestation of Crown-of-Thorns starfish, and coral bleaching through rises in surface temperature. They have also been impacted by industrial activities such as soil erosion from deforestation, sewerage, construction, agriculture and mining. If the corals disappear, then activities like diving and snorkelling will most likely go too.

Deforestation also continues to be an issue in Samoa. Population pressures and demand for export and local use of timber are significant. Much of the lowland rainforest has already been cleared, and when travelling around I saw that cutting has begun to shift inland. The government believes in forest protection for the conservation of water and soil resources as well as to ensure the survival of flying foxes and Samoa’s ecosystems. But villagers do not necessarily view the forest in the same way, and as over 80% of the land is held under ‘customary ownership’ they hold tenure over most of it. They believe that conversion of forests to agriculture is an appropriate use of their land. This is unlikely to be helped by a push for greater consumption of local produce by tourism related businesses (which is one of priorities outlined in the STA plan).

For a small island nation, Samoa also produces a significant amount of waste and faces a number of infrastructure challenges. Landfill is the dominant disposal route and I understand that island-wide waste minimisation and recycling programmes have yet to really be introduced. Raised wooden platforms are common at the front of properties to keep waste away from scavenging animals. Consumption of over-packaged imported goods is on the rise (which will only be exacerbated if tourist numbers do increase) and litter was evident in several of the more urban areas I travelled through (which I believe is a growing problem).

Health, education and social cohesion are all stated priorities for the government. In terms of life-expectancy, education and standard of living, Samoa currently ranks 106 (out of 187 countries and UN recognised territories) on the Human Development Index (HDI) (below average for countries in East Asia and the Pacific).

Same-sex relations is currently illegal and domestic violence against women is endemic. To a degree, child labour is also a problem with young people commonly engaged in labour activities through street vending (which was quite noticeable) and agricultural work. Sites and facilities I visited (including those of natural and cultural significance) were not particularly accessible. And whilst I don’t know for sure I suspect that there is also a low awareness of health and safety too.

Oh, and Samoa is also facing growing street dog problems – particularly prevalent on Upolu, often roaming in packs which can be aggressive (although I didn’t experience any issues personally). The government does recognise the issue and is working closely with the Animal Protection Society of Samoa, an NGO established to improve the health and welfare of dogs and cats in Samoa, including providing spey/neuter clinics to control the population. I would imagine it would take some time to bring the population under control, so I hope this programme is well resourced.

The Samoan way

In terms of delivering a unique and meaningful experience though, Samoa does this in spades.

Samoan’s are generally a very proud, friendly and welcoming people, often stopping and saying hello.

Despite a few hundred years of European influence, Samoa maintains its historical customs, social systems, and language. It is also apparently deeply conservative and devoutly Christian. The strict conventions of Fa’a Samoa (custom, values and traditional way of life) remain a strong force in Samoan life and politics.

I understand that all tourism activities need to be negotiated with local villages and chiefs. Villages also charge access or custom fees to visit local beaches, waterfalls, parking and activities like swimming or snorkelling. This provides key income for the community and goes towards funding things like education, food and utilities.

There is a view though that the tourism industry has been struggling in recent years (and possibly always has been). For instance, the majority of visitors to Samoa originate from New Zealand, Australia and neighbouring American Samoa. A significant proportion of which are thought to be visiting friends and family (as indeed I was in many respects). And these people don’t necessarily spend much on tourism services, instead spending most of their money with their ‘aiga (or extended families). There has also been a bit of a downturn in long-haul travellers from Europe and North America.

If the majority of visitors are from Oceania to grow the sector I would imagine that Samoa needs to look beyond in order to attract new tourists from other regions. This won’t be easy.

Cost is likely to be an issue for Aussie’s and Kiwi’s too. I believe that budget flights to locations like Indonesia and Malaysia are increasingly becoming an attractive proposition. For example, Air Malaysia flights to Kuala Lumpur are a fraction of the cost that you would pay to get to Samoa.

Samoa is also not on the most travelled route for cruise ships. For instance, there are about 35 to 40 cruise ship that visit Apia each year compared with around 80 odd visits to locations like Akaroa in the South Island of New Zealand over a period of just 3 months.

Honesty is the best policy…

The STA’s plan certainly covers a number of bases and there is no question in my mind that the public commitments are commendable and put many other countries to shame. But having skimmed through its 100 odd pages I was left feeling a little wanting. Is this about the sustainable development of ‘mass tourism’ or essentially something a little more niche (e.g. ecotourism) or is it both? And – unless I missed it – I couldn’t see anything in the plan that indicates how Samoa even intends to determine whether it’s met its goal of being the leading Pacific destination for sustainable tourism…

The Government apparently wants to improve and scale up tourism infrastructure and service delivery in order to promote Samoa as an attractive destination. A kind of ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy it seems…

The STA seem to have been pretty much assigned as the sole implementing agency responsible for achieving this and the Government’s ‘sustainable tourism’ key outcome. They cannot do this alone. They are almost entirely dependent on others to deliver the majority of actions. Against this backdrop, financial and non-financial resources are in short supply. Capacity building programmes like the one VSA operates are of course incredibly important. However, the whole point of capacity building is to help others to help themselves. This only works if the recipients are entirely bought-in (i.e. want to be helped and are not just going through the motions) and the institutional strength of the country is capable of supporting things moving forward. Regional cooperation and collaboration are also key too.

Having said this, Samoa’s local communities presents another conundrum. On the one hand many will want to benefit from an increased push on tourism, but presumably not at the expense of fa’a Samoa – their traditional way of life. I would imagine achieving both would be extremely difficult. Samoa also offers a counter to the view that local control will lead to sustainable management of resources such as forests. Paradoxically, mass tourism may erode the very authenticity Samoa wants to promote.

Therein lies the issue. Tourism is clearly important for Samoa, but I’m not sure that mass tourism as we know it is the answer to achieving sustainable economic growth. Samoa’s sustainability challenges are not specific to particular issues like tourism, deforestation, and so on. You cannot disconnect tourism from wider economic development. Samoa needs to find a way to reduce its economic vulnerability to enable its long-term interests and short-term priorities to be reconciled. This will not be easy.

Regardless of how good the GSTC criteria may be there is more to sustainability than doing well against a set number of indicators. For one this may give a false impression of how well Samoa is doing with regards sustainability. For another the focus is on today’s best practice rather than tomorrow’s required practice.

In today’s world transparency is becoming increasingly important – even in remote parts of the world. Promoting sustainable tourism is not just about applauding all the good things. It is also about being honest and recognising the negatives. Samoa needs to be able to measure the gap between where they are now and where they need to be in the future – and be very open about this. Sharing of lessons learned will be very important. It will be interesting to revisit where they are in 4 years.

Is Samoa currently geared up for ‘mass tourism’? I would say not… But if it’s a unique, slow and more authentic experience you’re after where you can immerse yourself in the local culture then Samoa is definitely the place to go!

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