What’s the true cost of tourism on these small Pacific island nations?
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What’s the true cost of tourism on these small Pacific island nations?

TOURISM is often seen as a panacea for development in the Pacific, a region deemed to have a competitive advantage with its warm climate, clean turquoise waters, beautiful landscapes and friendly locals.

These benefits are contrasted with some of the natural disadvantages of Pacific countries – their small size, both in population and geography; their insularity and remoteness; and their environmental vulnerability.

In our recent Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies article, we take a look at tourism in the Pacific, drawing on seven key emergent themes. These themes include: geopolitical influence; the impact of tourism; economic leakages and linkages; Chinese tourism; skills and training; air transportation; and tourism resilience.

The geopolitical drivers of tourism are critical for the Pacific. Although Australia and New Zealand have traditionally represented the bulk of international visitors to Pacific destinations, there is an increasing shift towards the Chinese outbound tourism market, particularly in marketing and promotion if not yet actual arrivals.

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Pacific countries are keen to get a share of this exponentially growing market, as international tourism is one prong in China’s soft power arsenal where stronger ties can be forged with the Pacific.

However, whether tourism actually contributes to the sustainable development of Pacific countries, and how it impacts the economic, environmental and socio-cultural dimensions, are questions that remain largely unanswered.

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A tourist buys some fresh produce from a Cook Islander woman at Punanga Nui Market, a popular market in the South Pacific. Source: Shutterstock

Tourism can have a number of economic benefits, including a contribution to economic growth, the support and creation of jobs, incentives for foreign direct investment, the potential to distribute income more equally, and the potential to drive infrastructure development.

These benefits are tempered, however, by the extent to which tourism expenditures leak out of the economy through imports and by the extent to which the tourism‐oriented sectors link with other sectors in the economy.

The larger the leakages, the lower the multiplier effects of the benefits of tourism. The lower the linkages with other sectors, the less likely it is that economic benefits will be dispersed throughout the destination economy.

Another key factor affecting Pacific tourism is the basic logistical challenge of getting tourists there.

Common to all Pacific countries is the vast distances that have to be spanned to maintain contact within any one island group, let alone between groups or with the rest of the world. Most of these countries established national airlines, not only for economic reasons but also for national pride and strategic intent.

However, due to heavy financial losses in recent years, most airlines have been restructured, entered into commercial partnerships with metropolitan carriers such as Qantas and Air New Zealand, or ended up in bankruptcy.

The costs of owning and operating a national airline are still extremely high in these sparsely populated and remote South Pacific countries, for whom running a profitable airline is a formidable task.

The demand for skilled hospitality and tourism workers in the Pacific continues to grow. Developing successful hospitality and tourism enterprises and adequately skilled tourism sector employees is vital for servicing new markets, adapting to changing circumstances, and contributing to economic growth and social prosperity.

The 21st century Pacific tourism worker needs more than enterprise‐specific skills to work effectively in the industry. Technical skills must be augmented by employability skills.

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Pacific governments need, therefore, to pay more attention to the tourism sector’s skills development needs. They should create national, coordinated workforce development plans focused on meeting the demand for appropriately skilled tourism workers with the capacity to contribute to economic growth and social prosperity.

In general, Pacific Islanders are in constant transition as they continue to find complex ways to contend with the intricate impacts of development on their communities and the many pressures that are applied to traditional lifestyles.

Of particular concern are the impacts of development on social and ecological systems. Because communal land, customary marine resources, and indigenous peoples are all part of the tourism experience, Islanders are exposed to the pressures that tourism brings.

In general, indigenous landowners have several options insofar as tourism land use is concerned: lease to developers, develop tourism themselves, undertake other activities on the land (typically subsistence agriculture), or leave it fallow.

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A culture show at Punanga Nui Market in Avarua town, Cook Islands. Source: Shutterstock

While fundamental constraints make them less competitive than Southeast Asian destinations such as Bali, Thailand, and Vietnam, Pacific nations have little choice but to seek further development of tourism.

The tourism sector will continue to be a key contributor to Pacific economies and at the same time have a commensurate effect on the demand for resources: human, capital, and natural. This might make tourism at odds with social, environmental, and community needs, especially where trade‐offs are required.

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Just how tourism will enable Pacific nations to meet the Sustainable Development Goals is one area of prominent concern. Another includes how destination communities will deal with the effects of climate change and sea level rises.

In the meantime, multilateral development partners such as the World Bank and bilateral donors such as New Zealand and Australia appear set to continue their enthusiastic support for tourism.

However, what is needed is a more concerted attempt to validate the sector’s true development credentials beyond the hype that often accompanies the sector.

This piece by Stephen Pratt, Joseph M. Cheer, and Denis Tolkach is based on their paper in the Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies journal, Tourism in Pacific island countries: a status quo round-up. All papers in the journal are free to read and download.

It was republished from Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion.