Island Tourism as an Emerging Field of Study

by Dr Thomas Baum, Professor of International Hospitality Management, University of Strathclyde

The study of tourism in the context of islands is a rapidly growing specialism within the wider and equally fast developing field of tourism research in general. For many people, of course, islands represent the epitome of the tourism experience - the picture of a sun-drenched, white-sanded, palm-fringed tropical island is widely used by image makers to represent this ideal as a symbol of all that is desirable in life and also by way of stark contrast to the physical and psychological realities of everyday existence. This stereotype certainly dominates the island tourism literature but there is increasing recognition of the role that tourism plays or can play within the economic, social, political and cultural lives of cold-water islands as well. Three book publications (1) (one of two volumes) have emerged in English alone over the past two years which, combined with a comprehensive range of journal papers and other reports, provide ample testimony to interest in the island tourism area.

The books are all compilations bringing together the work of authors from all over the world, often island dwellers themselves and thus able to treat their discussions with genuine “island sensitivity”. All the books combine two distinct components - general analysis of issues and challenges facing islands in the tourism context and specific island case studies. The latter material is, undoubtedly, dominated by tropical paradise island images - Lino Briguglio’s contribution, for example, contains just one case which does not address locations dominated by the sun, sea and sand, the Shetlands and Lockhart and Drakakis-Smith (East Friesland) and Conlin and Baum (Vancouver), also contain only limited material from cold-water destinations. As vacation patterns change with growing recognition of the health dangers of excessive sun exposure, it is likely that cold water islands offering new, alternative tourism experiences will flourish. The recent rapid growth of interest in Iceland as a tourism destination is an example of this.

What is it, then, that is at the root of interest in island tourism as a distinct field of interest and study within wider considerations of international tourism? First and foremost, islands are of significance, in tourism terms, because of the inherent attraction that they have for visitors which is of a scale beyond that of either the economic or geographical importance of most islands. There is an attraction and interest in islands, a fascination which draws visitors to islands and which acts as a stimulus beyond that which other tourism destinations, without the benefits of insularity, do not share. What is this fascination? In my contribution to Lockhart and Drakakis-Smith’s volume, I explored this fascination in some depth. In particular, I quoted Professor Richard Butler from the University of Western Ontario, Canada, who talked about the attraction of islands:

Their appeal may relate to the very feeling of separateness and difference, caused in part by their being physically separate, and perhaps therefore different from adjoining mainlands. Where such physical separativeness is accompanied by political separateness, the appeal can be expected to increase, and given people’s desires for the different while in pursuit of leisure, different climates, physical environments and culture can all be expected to further the attractiveness of islands as tourism destinations.

Butler certainly captures many of the attractions here. Islands do provide a sense of adventure to travellers - the physical remove from the mainland, necessitating a conscious decision to cross the water, is one important dimension. In part, it is this element that distinguishes Douglas, Isle of Man from Morecambe, Lancashire and the Bahamas from Florida. Loosing the sense of a true water crossing, as Skye and Penang have done and Prince Edward Island will do in 1997, may also diminish their interest to visitors for whom the “getting there” becomes much more mundane and routine. Of course, the water is also a barrier to travel, for reasons of cost and convenience and this means that those tourists who do arrive in an island setting do so by design rather than by chance - they have made a positive choice to be island tourists.

Islands are also perceived, by visitors, to offer a significantly different environment to the pace and pressures of “normal”, particularly urban living. A particularly effective promotional video, produced by the States of Guernsey, evolves from the theme of escape from pressure, noise and turmoil to the tranquillity of the island setting. Islands are seen as slower paced, perhaps “backward” in their culture, emphasising traditional, old fashioned values - a real chance to “get away from it all”. This is not true of all islands. Tourism development has effectively urbanised much of Oahu in Hawaii, especially in the Waikiki Beach area. Ibiza, in the Balearics, markets a vibrant all-action image to young visitors. But, by and large, the picture of difference, peace and “another time” represents a key attraction for visitors to islands and is certainly evident in many locations, be they sun-drenched South Pacific destinations such as the Cook Islands and Vanuatu or many of the eighteen inhabited Irish islands introduced by Patrick Burke in Issue 1 of Islander.

Cape Clear Island, off the coast of West Cork, represents an excellent example of how separation from the mainland does create or preserve distinctiveness. The town of Schull, on the mainland, is a thriving tourist town, increasingly influenced by global factors in terms of its tourism product, with a substantial number of businesses owned by outsiders from elsewhere in Ireland and Europe. English is the dominant language. By contrast, Cape Clear Island, just seven sea miles away, remains a bastion of Irish language and culture to where visitors are attracted to experience the two as living, working dimensions of the community and also an insight into Irish living as it may have been in the past. Indeed, old-time images are strongly cultivated in island tourism marketing - in addition to the example of Guernsey already mentioned, both the Isle of Man and Prince Edward Island media focus on the image of tranquillity and a return to by-gone eras.

Islands, to tourists, also represent a finite geographical environment, one with defined and, frequently, relatively small delimiters easy to cope with physically in terms of internal travel and psychologically as well. By contrast, regions or districts which are part of larger land masses - Provence or the State of Arizona have few natural boundaries and political parameters mean little to those visiting so that understanding the whole is much more of a challenge.

There is something particularly appealing about islands and island living to visitors which cannot be replicated on the mainland. Tourists, however, also face difficulties as a result of responding to their fascination with islands. Access, depending on the location of the island, can impose significant additional costs to an island location compared to those involved in mainland destinations. The necessity to avail of sea or air transportation can also impinge upon the flexibility which mainland travel permits. It can take the spontaneity out of travel, to the detriment of islands seeking to encourage visitors. Access may also be constrained by bad weather or industrial action, both representing examples of the vulnerability of islands to outside influences. Access, in fact, is an issue from both the point of view of visitors and islanders themselves. Transport companies, especially those without specific island commitment or ownership, frequently have little dedicated loyalty to individual islands and make pricing and scheduling decisions based on what they see as the “big picture”. Canadian Airlines, for example, ceased direct services between Central Canada and Newfoundland because more lucrative options for aircraft use are available elsewhere. The strength of both Aland Island and Iceland tourism is local control and ownership of the ferries and national airline respectively. Such ownership, however, may be unrealistic for many island destinations and they (and their visitors) remain in the control of major international air and sea carriers.

From the perspective of many islands, tourism represents a major component within what is frequently a limited range of economic activities. Small islands are frequently challenged by limited diversity within their economic structures and tourism may be seen as one way of diversifying away from excessive dependence on a cash crop or single mineral resource. This has certainly been the case in a number of Caribbean islands but also in northern locations where, for example, the decline of the ground fishery has prompted both Iceland and Newfoundland to view tourism as an alternative worthy of development.

A high level of dependence on tourism is, therefore, a characteristic feature of many small island communities. Whereas tourism in, for example, Germany represents less than 1% of GDP, in the UK, 1.5% and even in Spain just over 5%, in Bermuda it represents approximately 50% of the island’s economic activity. The economic impact of tourism is felt in many ways. Obviously, the most direct is in terms of the generation of foreign exchange and investment. However, tourism to islands has a significant range of additional economic effects relating to employment and other forms of multipliers. The vagaries of the tourism industry hit harder in island destinations which do not have the capacity to generate alternative economic activities and where social support systems are relatively weak.

Tourism to islands (as to many destinations) is frequently highly seasonal and seasonality impacts upon both the quality and sustainability of employment. Where tourism is but one component in an integrated economy (alongside agriculture, forestry and manufacturing, for example) there may be a sense of relief and rejuvenation out of the tourist season. For other destinations, out of season brings unemployment and hardship. Few island destinations (with possible Caribbean exception) have really overcome seasonality challenges although most seek to do so.

Tourism is also more pervasive in its impact on the small island community than it is on larger mainland resort destinations. The influx of large numbers of tourists to an island destination is likely to have a profound effect on the community in cultural, social and environmental terms because of size considerations. Host-visitor contact is likely to be high and interactive, with both positive and negative outcomes. There is the opportunity for positive learning but also the dangers of mimicry as the local community, especially the young, adopt the less desirable attitudes and behaviours of their visitors. There are clear employment benefits but, in many tropical island environments, such work is low-skilled with high paid positions taken by expatriate labour. Tourism development investment is also frequently foreign although this is by no means the case in the cold-water island context - locations such as Iceland. Aland and Bornholm are examples of islands where virtually all of the tourism industry is locally owned.

Tourism to and in islands, therefore, is of considerable interest both from the perspective of the visitor and in the context of the relationship between the tourists and the communities they visit. In academic terms, island tourism represents a powerfully focused microcosm of so many of the cultural, social, economic and environment issues that face contemporary tourism development. In this sense, island tourism does not represent the unique but it does constitute a discreet and growing field for international study. The volumes which inspired this piece represent just part of this growing interest (2). It is unlikely that they will be the last.

(1) Island Tourism: Management Principles and Practice Michael Conlin and Tom Baum
Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 1995
Sustainable Tourism in Islands and Small States:
vol 1 Issues and Policies, vol 2 Case Studies
Lino Briguglio et al
London: Pinter, 1996

Island Tourism: Problems and Perspectives
Douglas Lockhart and David Drakakis-Smith
London: Mansell, 1996

(2) The Small Islands Information Network (SIIN) includes an embryonic island tourism bibliography. It can be accessed at Additions to the bibliography are very welcome.