Monday, 14 April 2014

The paradox of tourism and the unspoilt environment

Peter George - Technical Director

Sitting on the train into London Waterloo this morning (a rare experience in itself) I found myself reading an article in the Metro about Nicaragua and its emerging tourist appeal as a result of its unspoilt beaches, adventure opportunities and rainforests full of unusual wildlife. The tourist potential of rainforests, this incredibly beautiful but globally diminishing habitat got me thinking about the paradox that presents itself in these situations, and my own experience of dealing with this in the context of EIA. The questions that arise are these: at what point does the unspoilt become spoilt because of our need to see it ‘in the flesh’, what is the carrying capacity of this resource and at what point does tourism development become part of the problem rather than a means to facilitate a solution?

Going back a hundred years, exploring wild and untamed lands was the domain of a few aristocrats with double barrelled names and both the time and financial resources to undertake expeditions to Africa, South America and other remote locations. Their motives were, arguably, centred more around self-promotion among their peers and the lure of big game hunting than any loftier environmental goals. After all, the world was considerably less developed and the population very much smaller (a mere 1.7 billion in 1900 compared with 7.2 billion today). There just weren’t anything like the pressures on natural resources, habitats and species that there are today. The Amazon rainforest would have been largely untouched and lions, tigers, elephants and other majestic species now teetering close to the edge of extinction would have roamed the African plains in vast numbers. How incredible it must have been to see that.

So what does this have to do with Nicaragua and its rainforests today? Globally, rainforests have suffered catastrophic devastation as a result of being cleared to make way for plantations and trees felled to meet the world’s seemingly insatiable appetite for hardwoods and other exotic materials and derivatives. And this devastation is not just restricted to rainforests. The seas around our islands are being decimated of fish and coral reefs are dying from bleaching as a result of rising water temperatures which in turn is linked back to climate change. Our fragile earth is under siege and so when small pockets of ‘untouched’ and ‘unspoilt’ habitats are found, we seem to feel a need to go and see them, perhaps to look back to a time when we were not so apparently hell bent on destroying the resources that breathe life into our planet and sustain our very existence. Which brings me back to the paradox I mentioned at the beginning. I have been very fortunate in my life and career to have experienced some incredible places around the world, from diving on the Great Barrier Reef, hiking through the rainforests of Borneo, to getting up close and personal with the amazing wildlife in Yellowstone National Park in the United States, to name but a few. But it was while working on a project in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) back in the late 1990’s that the issue of tourism potential and the unspoilt environment really came to my attention. The consultancy I was working for at the time won the contract for the EIA of a proposed runway extension at the main airport. At that time, only small 42 seat turbo-prop aircraft could land due to the short length of the runway. The plan was to extend it to accommodate larger 72 seat turbo-props and small jet aircrafts. The project was part of a wider redevelopment of the airport which included construction of a new terminal building. The existing one was, as I found out when I went out there, an old supermarket building from another island that had been taken down brick by brick and rebuilt at the airport. An interesting example of material re-use to be sure and somewhat amusing to experience going through customs and putting your bags on what was previously the check-out counter!

I was fortunate enough to spend 5 weeks on the islands and, in addition to project managing the EIA, undertook scuba surveys of the coral reefs and terrestrial ecology surveys. The island on which the airport is located was home to a diverse flora and fauna and fascinating habitats. There was also a small community centred around one of the idyllic white sand bays, which included local artisans and some charter boat operators, sailing being a very popular activity in the BVI. The problems arose from the plans for the airport. It was to be made significantly larger meaning it required more land and therefore encroachment in to the surrounding habitats. Furthermore, the extension to the runway required the infilling of another small bay. The land reclamation was to use sand dredged from nearby channels in between the islands resulting in at least temporary loss of habitat and impacts on fish and shellfish populations. Although ultimately the EIA concluded that the environmental impacts in the longer term would not be significant and extensive mitigation was proposed to address both short and long term effects, the question of tourism potential was one that vexed the team and myself. In consulting with tourism officials and local companies, the BVI’s ‘unspoilt’ islands with their rich flora and fauna, not to mention the surrounding coral reefs and excellent scuba diving, was cited again and again as a reason for bringing in more tourists and hence justified the expansion of the airport. However, what seemed to be lost on them was the fact that in order to do this it required some of those habitats, plants and animals to be destroyed. Furthermore, given the potential numbers of additional tourists anticipated as a result of the increased capacity of the airport, it became apparent that there would be insufficient hotel rooms to accommodate them. Of course, the solution would be to build more hotels, taking up more land and consequently destroying even more of the very thing that is one of the island’s main tourist attractions. And so the question arose as to how much development could be accommodated before the islands could no longer claim to be ‘unspoilt’. It was one that was never answered, at least not while I was there, and had been conveniently scoped out of the EIA before the consultants were commissioned.

Although I returned briefly to the BVI a couple of years later, I have not been again since the airport was completed. Aside from having an office on a palm fringed beach for five weeks, one of the things I enjoyed most about my time out there was driving and hiking around the main island of Tortola taking in the breath-taking scenery and experiencing the tranquillity of isolated bays and the incredible wildlife. I can see the attraction and can understand why those in charge of tourism in the territory could see the economic benefits of bringing in more people, although historically the BVI has been the most prosperous economy in the Caribbean thanks in large part to its principal industry of financial services. It may seem selfish and even a bit hypocritical having had the opportunity to experience it myself, but I don’t think we should be developing tourism based simply on somewhere being unspoilt or untouched by human hand. Building even one small eco-friendly resort inevitably means human interaction and potentially negative impacts unless very carefully managed. So I say let’s leave the unspoilt the way it is. This is the paradox, how can something continue to be considered unspoilt once we have built hotels and all their associated infrastructure to allow all of us environmental voyeurs to see it and interact with it.

As for the BVI, latest figures suggest visitor numbers have declined in recent years, mainly due to the recession, but it’s also worth noting that more than half of visitors still arrive by cruise ship and as such are very transient. They also do not require hotel accommodation on the islands which I suppose is a good thing from an environmental perspective. One wonders then whether the expansion of the airport was ever really needed and have some of the island’s natural habitats now been lost forever based on a potential that was never really there.

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