Tourism on small islands:
The urgency for
A B S T R A C T
To consider small islands as places for sustainable tourism—
or sustainable anything, for that matter—must surely be cause
for critical deliberation. Small islands as sanctuaries, or rare
citadels for ecological safekeeping and tight-knit communities,
runs counter to islands as sites for extraction and development,
yet increasingly the latter prevails. However, the former are the
precise reasons that small islands are aligned with the global
travel supply chain. Consuming small islands abides with the
tropical idyll narrative and, within such invocations, the
exposure of small islands to externalities renders its utility to
purposes that run counter to benign and constructive outcomes.
Herein is the dilemma for small islands and their entanglements
with tourism expansion.
M . C H E E R
Professor in Sustainable Tourism,
Wakayama University, Japan
Adjunct Research Fellow,
Monash University, Australia
Beautiful beaches like this one on
Bali will not remain the epitome of
ecological perfection with detritus
of every imaginable description
washing up on their shores.
The principal question posed asks: is the proliferation of tourism on small islands
enhancing the development of social-ecological resilience, or accelerating the onset of
system failure? If so, how can unfolding trajectories be monitored and assessed? The
UNWTO’s Mandatory Issue Areas for the observation of sustainable tourism are applied
as guiding indicators. The urgency to articulate indicators of sustainable tourism devel-
opment is palpable because the conceptualization of small islands as ideal tourist
escapes will likely intensify. Small islands cannot afford to experience monumental
blunders given their scale, adaptive capacity limitations, and relative fragility.
The concept of the island has long been prominent in literature and useful in science:
biologists and geographers, national park managers and archaeologists, linguists,
geneticists, and evolutionary theorists have all turned at times to the model of the
island. Yet it might no longer be a great model for the new needs and concerns of our
rapidly globalizing century (Robin, 2014, n.p.).
Robin’s (2014) sentiments are a reminder of the way islands, as the received wisdom
would have us believe, were sanctuaries from the madding world, where all that was
unblemished could be found, and where nature thrived over and above the onerous
inﬂuence of humans (Chandler & Pugh, 2018; Hau‘ofa, 1994; Kothari & Arnall, 2017).
The current epoch punctuated by global warming and rising sea levels and the spectre
of human-derived garbage, seen in the Paciﬁc Garbage Patch and on the remotest of
islands in the Paciﬁc, calls for urgent reassessment of the place of islands in contem-
porary imagination (Baldacchino, 2007; Pyrek, 2016). A call to arms, no less, arguing
that the well-being of island communities is now more than ever outside of their con-
trol, buffeted by ﬁckle winds originating far beyond, and diminishing their ability to
deal with increasing frequency of climatic and economic shocks (Cheer & Lew, 2017;
Connell, 2018; Grydehøj & Kelman, 2017; Lew & Cheer, 2017).
The sanctuary that islands once were has expired, and the imposts borne of periph-
erality and remoteness that once provided the steeliness islanders were famed for has
slowly disintegrated (Kelman, 2018; Moore, 2010). Robin’s (2014) doubts as to whether
islands remain models of ecological perfection are epitomized on the beaches of Bali,
where detritus of every imaginable description can be found. Islands as dumping
grounds for the excesses of contemporary life are not new (Verlis & Wilson, 2020) as
typiﬁed by the aptly named Iron Bottom Sound in the Solomon Islands, a burial ground
for the assemblages of the Second World War in the Paciﬁc.
That islands were considered robust, adaptable, and with the innate ability to
bounce back from whatever was meted out was probably appropriate when things were
more predictable and where the pressure on islands was less intense (Hau‘ofa, 1994).
Islands and their surrounding waterways—‘aquapelagos’, to use Hayward’s (2012)
130 T H E U RG EN C Y F O R S US TA I N A B I LI T Y I N D I CAT O R S
phrasing—are inseparable in that where one is compromised, the other suffers.
Presently, small islands are increasingly under assault from the sea that surrounds
them, not because of the ocean itself, but because of the human signatures that are
writ large across the globe (Hernández-Delgado, 2015). The end result manifest is
evidenced by the hopelessness of i-Kiribati to negotiate and overcome the effects of
rising sea levels, hastened by global warming (Allgood & McNamara, 2017). Meanwhile,
a world away in Washington, Canberra, and Beijing, the plight of small islands is an
inconvenience to the pursuit of economic growth. Consequently, protest against the
extraction and consumption of fossil fuels is consistently resisted in the interests of
maintaining growth trajectories.
Might islands be given the rights accorded to other sentient beings as seen in
assessments that rivers should be given the same rights as humans (O’Donnell &
Talbot-Jones, 2018)? Islands, like rivers and tributaries, are life-support mechanisms
for widespread and diverse ecosystems. That the Whanganui in New Zealand and the
Ganges and Yamuna in India, non-human entities all, have been accorded the same
rights as humans should jettison notions of islands as disposable landscapes (Farbotko,
2010). This is pertinent, for the expansion of tourism on small islands is often inter-
posed with reef dredging, mangrove clearance, land reclamation, and deforestation, as
well as heightened demands on what are usually scarce resources, particularly ground
water (Zuidema, Plate, & Dikou, 2011). Moreover, the byproducts of tourism on small
islands in the form of hard waste or wastewater are usually secreted in deep pits or
tanks, or ﬂushed into an ocean where it was thought that the capacity to absorb what-
ever was dumped into it was boundless (Mohee et al., 2015).
Most telling are the ways by which islands are considered ideal locations for the
cast-offs from the mainland or metropolitan centres, as seen in fast deteriorating
facilities in the Marshall Islands and Tahiti where the remnants of the military indus-
trial complex lie precariously, outliving the conﬁnes that were to have protected
humans from harm (Danielson, 1990; Gerrard, 2015; Johnson & Takala, 2018; Keown,
2018). Not forgetting the way
islands were used to house the
rejects of human society in the way
of convicts, castaways and lepers,
and today asylum seekers, as seen in
the Paciﬁc (Manus, Nauru, Christ-
mas Island) and Greece (Lesvos,
Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros). Con-
currently, these places retain their
paradisiac and otherworldly allure
for tourists, far enough to escape to
and close enough to retreat from.
Tourists enjoying a beach on Kos, Greece, in 2015 as
desperate migrants arrive in a dinghy.
J O S E PH M. C H EE R
Consequently, to consider small islands as places for sustainable tourism—or
sustainable anything, for that matter—must surely be cause for critical deliberation
(Cheer & Peel, 2011; Cole & Brown, 2015; Kerr, 2005; Scheyvens & Momsen, 2008).
Small islands as sanctuaries, or rare citadels for ecological safekeeping and tightknit
communities, runs counter to islands as sites for extraction and development, yet
increasingly the latter prevails. However, the former are the precise reasons that small
islands are aligned with the global travel supply chain (Prince, 2017; Scheyvens, 2006;
Twining-Ward & Butler, 2002). Consuming small islands abides with the tropical idyll
narrative and, within such invocations, the exposure of small islands to externalities
renders its utility to purposes that run counter to benign and constructive outcomes.
Indeed, islands as playgrounds where hedonism and proﬂigacy rule is more likely, as
evidenced by the partying and pleasure-seeking classes in Mallorca, Ibiza, Bali, and
Phuket (Shakeela & Weaver, 2018). The demand for islands as sites of relaxation and
indulgence knows no bounds, and, for whatever efﬂuent is produced, ‘out-of-mind and
out-of-sight’ resonates (Schwartz, 1999). This harkens back to Schalansky’s (2014, p.
19) cynicism: “Paradise may be an island. But it is hell too,” where she refers to the
contradictions of small islands as sites of pleasure for some and places of hardship and
desperation for others, as so often manifest in host-guest encounters (Sheller, 2004).
Herein is the dilemma for small islands and their entanglements with tourism
Mallorca is an island playground for the partying and pleasure-seeking classes.
T H E U RG EN C Y F O R S US TA I N A B I LI T Y I N D I CAT O R S
expansion. Islanders usually bear the costs of growth, particularly when the beneﬁci-
aries of expansion give short shrift to the marginalizations that emerge (Cheer, 2018;
Ridderstaat, Croes, & Nijkamp, 2016; Wilkinson, 1987), with the consequences falling
on the shoulders of islanders and in situ ecosystems (Kurniawan et al., 2016; Ridder-
staat, Croes, & Nijkamp, 2016). That small islands have seen ﬁt to close themselves off
from tourism, as in the case of Maya Bay, Borocay, and Komodo, is a high-stakes
gamble, but necessitated by the surpassing of critical tipping points (Koh & Fakfare,
2019). This begs the question: what is the point of development of any kind on a small
island if the very essence of the people and place is undermined? And what indicators
are needed to signal that uppermost thresholds are reached?
ORIENTATION AND AIMS
This chapter is concerned with tourism on small islands and the overarching themes
that allude to how sustainable tourism might be signposted via indicators. Tourism is
emblematic of the challenge for small islands: how to maintain and keep pace with the
rest of the world while not getting caught in the backwash that accompanies the waves
of change. For many small islands, and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), tourism
presents unparalleled opportunities for economic development, and diversiﬁcation
The small island of Borocay in the Philippines has closed itself oﬀ from tourism.
J O S E PH M. C H EE R
from declining stock-in-trade endeavours such as ﬁshing, subsistence agriculture, and
cash cropping (Pratt, 2015; Scheyvens & Momsen, 2008). The gradual decline of ﬁsh-
eries brought about by the intensiﬁcation of industrialized ﬁshing and the falling-off
of agrarian pursuits (for example, sugar and copra production) and their waning value
have catapulted tourism into becoming a priority for small islands (Cheer, 2013; Cheer,
Reeves, & Laing, 2013).
The principal question posed asks: is the proliferation of tourism on small islands
enhancing the development of social-ecological resilience, or accelerating the onset of
system failure on small islands? If so, how can unfolding trajectories be monitored and
assessed? Perhaps the twin and opposing forces of resilience building and decline are
in constant motion in the pursuit of sustainable tourism predicated on building more
resilient communities, and also undermining the social and ecological inheritances of
islanders, leaving a net deﬁcit (Cheer & Lew, 2017; Hall, Prayag, & Amore, 2017; Lew
& Cheer, 2017; Saarinen & Gill, 2018). Apropos to the overarching question is an
extension to the line of enquiry: what are indicators that might determine whether, in
the presence of tourism development, small island communities can build resilience?
The conceptual framing that follows applies a praxis-based approach to outlining
the dynamics between tourism development and small islands. The focus on practice
does not mitigate the need for theoretical development, but instead is focused on
134 T H E U RG EN C Y F O R S US TA I N A B I LI T Y I N D I CAT O R S
People praying in temple Pura Luhur Uluwatu in Bali.
Pura LuhurUluwatu is a god dedicated to the spirits of the sea.
employing a device to consider how small islands might deal with and better under-
stand the pressures of tourism growth. Although the development of theory regarding
resilience and adaptation on small islands has a place in policymaking and planning,
a deliberate focus in this chapter is to develop practice-based thinking.
In response to the overarching line of questioning, a conceptual framework is put
forward to shape the development of sustainable tourism indicators in small islands.
The UNWTO’s Mandatory Issue Areas for the observation
of sustainable tourism are applied as guiding indicators
(UNWTO, 2016). Consisting of a set of nine pointers, the
application of this framework to small islands can make
way for more pragmatic assessments of sustainability
progress or decline. These industry-led indicators pin-
point most of the underlying variables that should ordi-
narily frame assessment of sustainability of tourism on
small islands. While striving to be all-encompassing,
they provide umbrella coverage for the spectrum of tourism impacts, with the relevance
of indicators remaining subject to particular island contexts.
The UNWTO International Network of Sustainable Tourism Observatories (INSTO)
was created in 2004 with the objective to support the continuous improvement of
sustainability and resilience in the tourism sector through systematic, timely and
regular monitoring of tourism performance and impact in order to better understand
destination-wide resource use and foster the responsible management of tourism.
(UNWTO, n.d., n.p.)
The UNWTO’s Mandatory Issue Areas signpost critical success factors that are par-
ticularly pertinent for small-island contexts where tourism is ﬁrmly entrenched, and
where rethinking the place of tourism is pressing. The term ‘islandscapes’ is apt as it
suggests that small islands must be distinguished from non-island contexts, given their
largely unique conditions. Very often this includes the burdens of peripherality, narrow
economic bases, proportionately small resident populations, limited range of services,
dependence on modest transport networks, and resource scarcity, among others.
“Islandscapes encompass both the landscape (physical and cultural landscapes) and
seascape (coastline and other bodies of water that encompass islands) and this inter-
section makes up the essential character of islands” (Cheer et al., 2017, p. 41).
The relevance of islandscapes as a concept in understanding and taking into
account the departure points from the mainland or larger adjacent islands is vital. Small
islands “in and of themselves, and beyond this fascination with them as nodes within
THE TERM ‘ISLANDSCAPES’
is apt as it suggests that small
islands must be distinguished
from non-island contexts, given
their largely unique conditions.
J O S E PH M. C H EE R
the tourist bubble, are also sites of socio-economic and environmental tension, under-
lined by the practicality of distance from metropolitan centres, and mostly laden down
by terms of trade that are very often onerous and difﬁcult to overcome” (Cheer et al.,
2017, p. 42). Apropos, rather than simply problematizing tourism, this conceptual
framing seeks to accentuate the critical success factors that can help inform policy and
UNWTO ISSUE AREAS FOR SUSTAINABLE TOURISM
As evidence-based decision making is of utmost importance for sustainable tourism
development, the visions behind the INSTO initiative highlights the key role that
observatories play as an essential instrument to continuously enhance the
sustainability of the tourism sector. (UNWTO, 2016, p. 1)
The desire to develop measures for sustainable tourism acknowledges that without
systematic collection and analysis of empirical data, tracking and assessing the sus-
tainability of tourism will remain elusive. Consequently, sustainable tourism indicator
regimes have emerged as one way that destinations can come to terms with the sus-
tainability of tourism expansion. The UNWTO INSTO framework is one of the more
prominent modes of indicator-driven knowledge and is increasingly seen as an essen-
tial tool for strategic destination management.
The Cathedral of la Seu Majorca in Palma de Mallorca.
T H E U RG EN C Y F O R S US TA I N A B I LI T Y I N D I CAT O R S
Other regimes include the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s (GSTC) Criteria
for Destinations (GSTC, 2013) and the European Tourism Indicators System (ETIS)
for sustainable destination management (European Commission, 2016). The GSTC
criteria are used for education and awareness-raising, policymaking for businesses
and government, measurement and evaluation decision-making, and as a basis for
certiﬁcation. Underpinning the GSTC approach are minimum criteria to help reach
quadruple bottom-line impacts encompassing social, environmental, cultural, and eco-
nomic sustainability. While the adoption of such criteria is voluntary for destination
managers, increasingly GSTC certiﬁcation is acknowledged for the marketing and
public relations utility. This leaves it potentially open to criticisms of greenwashing if
destinations attain certiﬁcation based on minimum standards, then fail to maintain
or strengthen their sustainability credentials.
Conversely, the European Tourism Indicator System
(ETIS) provides destination managers with tools that
enable more consistent management, measurement, and
knowledge development regarding sustainable opera-
tions. The intention is to enable wider tourism stake-
holder groups to understand the overarching impacts of
tourism on destinations and host communities. Unlike
the GSTC scheme, the ETIS does not associate with
certiﬁcation processes and instead assumes a voluntary
code of conduct. However, both the GSTC and ETIS, as
well as UNWTO INSTO, have the common aim of track-
ing and ascertaining the sustainability of tourism. In
converging all three approaches, irrespective of which criteria is used to establish the
sustainability credentials of destinations, there tends to be a paucity of empirical data,
thus highlighting the opportunity to apply indicator regimes, either as non-mandatory
measures or in relation to earned certiﬁcation.
In adopting the UNWTO INSTO approach as the backdrop for this analysis, over-
arching considerations are given to how each of the nine criteria plays out and the
methodological issues that underpin each one.
In the small Paciﬁc Island nation of Vanuatu, the term turism blong yumi blong evriwan
in the country’s lingua franca (‘tourism belongs to everyone’) resounds and is used as
a catchcry by government to promote the merits of tourism development. That host
community satisfaction and buy-in for tourism is essential is a truism, and, evidently,
when this fails the sector becomes precariously poised and risks compromising tourist
satisfaction as well (Cheer et al., 2018). The tendency to prioritize tourist satisfaction
J O S E PH M. C H EE R 137
IN THE SMALL PACIFIC ISLAND
nation of Vanuatu, the term
turism blong yumi blong
evriwan in the country’s lingua
franca (‘tourism belongs to
everyone’) resounds and is used
as a catchcry by government to
promote the merits of tourism
above that of the resident population is commonplace where tourism growth is pursued
despite local misgivings and marginalizing propensities.
In 1980, Rajotte and Crocombe (Figure 5.1) made what was an unprecedented
attempt to understand how islanders in the Paciﬁc saw tourism and how their lives had
changed. Overall, the sense of foreboding that tourism had promised so much yet
delivered so little was clear. What’s more, islanders articulated that in exchange for
their culture and islandscapes, what they got back amounted to little more than crumbs
from the tourists’ table. Three decades later, Pratt and Harrison (2015) found that the
challenge to enable tourism to exercise its fullest capacity for development in the
region remained challenging.
The present-day phenomenon of overtourism is largely predicated on the notion
that it arises when local communities feel disgruntled with tourism growth that leaves
them worse off (Cheer, Milano, & Novelli, 2019). As distinct from overcrowding, over-
tourism is “the excessive growth of visitors leading to overcrowding in areas where
residents suffer the consequences of temporary and seasonal tourism peaks, which
have enforced permanent changes to their lifestyles, access to amenities and general
well-being” (Milano, Cheer, & Novelli, 2019, p. 1). The key is the enforcement of
permanent changes that lead to compromised ability to adapt and become resilient to
externalities (Cheer et al., 2019). Where this has been evident in small islands such as
Borocay, Komodo, and Phi Phi Lei (site of Maya Beach), social and ecological tipping
points had been breached, necessitating last-gasp measures or risk permanent
Insofar as questions that underline the development of indicators aligning with the
UNWTO INSTO approach, these can include:
1. What are the optimal ratios of hosts to tourists?
2. What characterizes the spatial dispersal of tourists on the island?
3. Is there a longitudinal regime of monitoring and evaluating islander
community attitudes toward tourism?
4. What are alternative indicators of wellbeing? This relates to non-economic
variables such as security, belonging, sense of place, community cohesion,
and crime, among others (VNSO, 2012).
Seasonal variations in small islands depend on two key factors: whether they are in
cold-water or warm-water contexts. In both, seasonal peaks are likely in warmer
months when access to small islands is less constrained on account of climatic and
environmental factors, as well as in regards to provision of transport services (Andri-
otis, 2005; Cuccia & Rizzo, 2011). In warm-water tropical destinations, visitation is
shaped by seasonal weather factors peaking outside the hurricane or cyclone season.
138 T H E U RG EN C Y F O R S US TA I N A B I LI T Y I N D I CAT O R S
J O S E PH M. C H EE R 139
Source: Institute of Paciﬁc Studies, Suva
FIGURE 5.1: Paciﬁc tourism: As islanders see it
Insofar as seasonality concerns visitation, capacity constraints on small islands often
limit expansion in peak periods, underlining overcrowding and carrying-capacity
anxieties (Santana-Jiménez & Hernández, 2011). Where these effects are seasonal, the
capacity for recovery and regeneration in between peak, shoulder, and off-peak seasons
gives communities some respite. However, where seasonality factors are less inﬂuential
and where visitation is at persistent peaks, such conditions raise red ﬂags for sustain-
ability concerns (Cheer et al., 2019).
In employing the UNWTO INSTO approach, tourism stakeholders on small islands
are encouraged to assess seasonal patterns of visitation, and align these with sustain-
ability markers. The ability to moderate and keep visitation on an even keel, rather
than experience uneven spikes with massive differences between low and high seasons,
is vital. Some key questions relevant to assessing seasonality effects include:
1. Are overcrowding symptoms obvious, and
to what extent do these lead to temporary
or permanent changes to the sense of place?
2. Are there strategies to smooth visitation to
ensure absence of wild swings between
high and low season?
3. Are services and utilities able to cope
with visitation peaks?
4. Are businesses able to maintain viability
in between low and high peak seasons?
5. Do employees enjoy security of employment throughout the various
6. Is a period of closure required to encourage ample time for recovery and
regeneration following peak periods?
Destination economic benefits
When tourism is invoked, it is very often on the basis that it can serve as a key pillar of
a small island’s economy (Pratt, 2015). What’s more, it is motivated by a desire to
diversify away from typical island livelihoods including ﬁsheries, niche agricultural
commodities (e.g., copra), and remittances from links to the metropolitan centre and,
in SIDS contexts, from abroad (Lasso & Dahles, 2018). In the case of SIDS where the
traditional non-cash economy still predominates, the chance to parlay this into trans-
actions in exchange for cash income is another key driver. Additionally, where inim-
itable cultural heritage is present, the presentation of this for tourism can garner
further cash income opportunities (Cheer, Reeves, & Laing, 2013).
However, very often, the extent to which small island communities can extract
140 T H E U RG EN C Y F O R S US TA I N A B I LI T Y I N D I CAT O R S
THE ABILITY TO MODERATE
and keep visitation on an even
keel, rather than experience
uneven spikes with massive
diﬀerences between low and
high seasons, is vital.
optimal returns from tourism brings into question the real economic impacts from
tourism (Bojanic & Lo, 2016). The reference is to ascertaining the extent to which
trickle-down and multiplier effects are garnered in favour of local communities, often
subject to the degree to which external parties are engaged in the expansion of tourism
as seen in the often disproportionate reliance on external capital, expertise, and link-
ages to the tourism supply chain (Garrigós-Simón, Galdón-Salvador, & Gil-Pechuán,
Accordingly, some of the key questions that help paint a clearer picture of the
micro- and macro-level economic impacts could include:
1. What do macroeconomic indicators suggest in relation to the economic
impact on island life? This might focus on island-wide issues related to
housing affordability, inﬂation, and GDP.
2. How can data related to formal and informal income be accessed and
aggregated to give a more direct and complete picture of the overall
resources available to island residents?
3. Is there an established longitudinal regime of economic data collection that
is supported by the island’s residents and business community? Moreover,
who is charged with the responsibility for collecting data and, where
ﬁnancing is required, who bears the cost?
4. To what extent are data on visitor expenditures collated?
J O S E PH M. C H EE R 141
Trekker on Komodo island, Indonesia.
Heavily linked to the economic imperative is the development of employment oppor-
tunities for island residents. Formal tourism employment in small islands is usually
constrained and subject to seasonal ﬂuctuations. Consequently, employment is
sporadic and unreliable, meaning that, for many, multiple livelihood activities are
usually needed (Hughes & Scheyvens, 2018). In SIDS contexts, this may involve com-
plementing traditional economic activities (subsistence agriculture or mix of subsis-
tence and cash cropping), temporary employment off the island, or full-time
employment overseas on cruise ships and other maritime-going vessels.
In small-island contexts, it is commonplace for islanders to partake in guest worker
schemes like Australia’s Seasonal Worker program that engages Paciﬁc islanders as
guest workers on Australian farms (Bedford, Bedford, Wall, & Young, 2017). This often
means families are without key family members, intensifying pressure on remaining
members to satisfy child and/or elderly parent care, home maintenance responsibilities,
and civic volunteerism. However, the usual dearth of secure and continuous employ-
ment opportunities necessitates movement away from island homes.
Also, there is a tendency for the skills capacity of residents to be limited given the
constraints of accessing tourism skills training opportunities and prior work experi-
ence. When it comes to applying the UNWTO INSTO guidelines, some of the key
1. What are the overall aptitudes and capacities of islanders to take on
positions in tourism-related enterprises? This may include language and
speciﬁc skills-based competencies such as in culinary and food-related roles
and accommodation and tours management.
2. What strategies are required to bridge skills gaps?
3. What funding mechanisms are available to provide skills training and
For many small-island tourism enterprises, energy costs are the largest operating cost
given reliance on fossil fuels to power diesel generators and outboard motors
(Michalena & Hills, 2018). However, in line with shifts towards renewable energies, the
natural capacity for solar and/or wind is increasingly being seized upon. In Tuvalu, the
small-island country is aiming for 100% renewable energy by 2020. Clearly whether
an island is warm- or cold-water, or located in the global south or not, can determine
realistic avenues for the shifts away from reliance on costly fossil fuel usage (World
Bank, 2015). It may also be dependent on the type of tourism development employed,
whether high-end resort-style inclusive of golf courses and the like, or small-scale,
bungalow-type, which are less energy-intensive.
142 T H E U RG EN C Y F O R S US TA I N A B I LI T Y I N D I CAT O R S
1. What is the current status quo regarding energy sources in use on the
2. What is the capacity to harness renewable energy either via wind or solar?
3. What are wider government initiatives related to renewable energy use?
The general absence of underground water sources and scarcity of groundwater catch-
ment areas makes shortage of potable water on small islands a practical constraint for
tourism (Belmar, McNamara, & Morrison, 2016). As Cole (2016) has emphasized, little
thought is given to ensuring that tourism water usage
does not compromise what limited water there is on
small islands. Tourism tends to be water-intensive and,
unless effective planning and policy regimes are in place,
water will continue to be seen as in endless supply.
Water consumption by tourists on small islands con-
siderably outstrips that of local residents for whom the
consequences of proﬂigate use is felt most profoundly
(Bird, 2019; Hof & Blázquez-Salom, 2015). As Cole (2016)
has warned, while islanders tend not to be the main ben-
eﬁciaries of tourism expansion, they often bear a dispro-
portionate cost burden of water scarcity. Seasonality
trends also inﬂuence water consumption while more
volatile weather patterns underlined by lower-than-
average rainfalls also tend to have an abiding impact on water management (Garcia &
Servera, 2003; Martinez-Ibarra, 2015). Accordingly, when it comes to water manage-
ment, some underlying questions include:
1. Is there a water management regime in situ and does it have an overarching
role on the effective management of water resources on the island?
2. What is the status quo of water scarcity or abundance on the island?
3. What considerations are given to water emergency situations and how are
competing priorities of local resident need and tourism-sector requirements
4. What capacity is there for a water desalination facility as a backup in times
of water scarcity?
J O S E PH M. C H EE R 143
LITTLE THOUGHT IS GIVEN
to ensuring that tourism water
usage does not compromise
what limited water there is on
small islands. Tourism tends to
be waterintensive and, unless
eﬀective planning and policy
regimes are in place, water will
continue to be seen as in
The options for the dispensation of wastewater on small islands is limited, with two
key options tending to prevail: in-ground storage or disposal into surrounding water-
ways. Moreover, wastewater treatment facilities are sparse on small islands, meaning
that greater intensity of wastewater production, coinciding with increased visitation,
is highly problematic (Wells et al., 2016). Eutrophication effects are introduced where
surrounding water bodies become excessively nutrient-laden, leading to damage to
marine life and excessive algal blooms. More often,
rudimentary septic-tank systems are the fullest extent
of what is provided and, over a period of time, they run
the risk of not being ﬁt for purpose when island popu-
lations and tourist visitations spike.
Small islands are particularly vulnerable to hyper-
eutrophication, and the impacts can render perma-
nent damage, especially to fragile reef ecosystems that
locals rely on for subsistence ﬁshing and tourism (O’-
Driscoll, Bean, Mahoney, & Humphrey, 2019). Typi-
cally, the disposal of wastewater and management of
efﬂuents are considered benign, especially where
tourist visitation is minimal and the pressure on wastewater production is non-threat-
ening. The establishment of resorts on small islands, along with golf courses, lagoon
swimming pools, and rainwater showerheads heap further pressure on water usage and
its eventual disposal. Consequently, wastewater management has moved from being
an innocuous by-product of local residents when small islands were moderately pop-
ulated, to more onerous concern as tourism numbers swell and further infrastructure
is established. Some underlining questions may include:
1. Are in situ wastewater management approaches and infrastructure ﬁt for
purpose now and in view of tourism growth projections?
2. Have analyses of current wastewater management regimes and their impacts
on the island’s marine environments been conducted, especially at outfall
3. What regulatory requirements and follow-up enforcement are in place to
ensure tourism operator compliance with the current wastewater
144 T H E U RG EN C Y F O R S US TA I N A B I LI T Y I N D I CAT O R S
SMALL ISLANDS ARE
particularly vulnerable to
hypereutrophication, and the
impacts can render permanent
damage, especially to fragile
reef ecosystems that locals rely
on for subsistence ﬁshing
So lid waste manage ment
Much like wastewater management, the issue of solid waste management is usually
intensiﬁed in tandem as tourist visitation increases (Estay-Ossandon & Mena-Nieto,
2018). Solid waste management is typically comprised of in-ground burial of organic
and non-organic matter such as glass and aluminium cans, given the onerous expense
of moving this off the island (Verlis & Wilson, 2020). Moreover, in SIDS contexts,
avenues for recycling and reuse are very limited, resulting in off-island storage either
on the ‘mainland’ or adjacent islands whose sole purpose
is the deposit of solid waste.
A range of questions are prompted, but, most impor-
tantly, queries about how tourism production and con-
sumption processes can change to make solid waste
management less onerous are pressing. A growing focus
aligning the tourism supply chain with inputs that are
less demanding on waste-management processes in situ
is essential. Issues including the sourcing or local input
and food miles mitigation, packaging, and treatment of
organic solid waste is also necessary, beyond the two
most common means of dealing with solid waste: incin-
eration or in-ground burial.
In consideration of solid waste management, key
1. What scrutiny is placed on tourism supply chain inputs in small islands
to ensure effective management of solid waste?
2. To what extent are local residents and tourism stakeholders consulted and
involved in solid waste management discussions?
3. What level of resources is required to support the development and
consolidation of solid waste management procedures?
It is without question that the imperative for effective governance is urgent as the
demands on small islands as tourist destinations intensify. Apropos, the compelling
need for good governance is magniﬁed in small-island contexts where resilience and
vulnerability are more pronounced, and where tourism developments at a wider scale
can have far-reaching and even irreversible consequences (Figueroa & Rotarou, 2016).
The lure of tourism lies in the inherent peripherality of small islands and the ways by
which this tends to introduce aspiration for greater engagement with the metropolitan
centre for economic and socio-psychological reasons.
J O S E PH M. C H EE R 145
A GROWING FOCUS ALIGNING
the tourism supply chain with
inputs that are less demanding
processes in situ is essential.
Issues including the sourcing
or local input and food miles
mitigation, packaging, and
treatment of organic solid
waste is also necessary.
In some cases, responsibility for governance of tourism on small islands rests else-
where, including transnational resort and cruise ship corporations, and this creates
grounds for discontent where decisions made offshore can have considerable implica-
tions onshore (González-Morales, Álvarez-González, Sanﬁel-Fumero, & Armas-Cruz,
2016). This occurs where wider regional institutions conduct tourism destination man-
agement and promotion with little or no practical presence on the ground. Governance
failures occur where the operation of tourism is not synchronized with stakeholder in-
terests. Gaining wide stakeholder buy-in for tourism expansion on small islands is vital,
for, in tight-knit and small communities, grounds for disharmony can have far-reaching
ramiﬁcations. In tandem, securing greater corporate social responsibility from the
tourism sector can aid policymaker attempts to guide
development that is in synchrony with governance
and policy regimes (Hughes & Scheyvens, 2016).
Good governance of tourism on small islands is
intertwined and tied into all of the aforementioned
UNWTO INSTO issues of concern and underpins
small-island tourism systems. Consequently, ques-
tions regarding the governance of tourism on small
islands have implications beyond tourism, and are
linked directly to the social and ecological resilience
of small islands. As a result, the governance of tourism
is inextricably tied to the economic and political back-
drop that shapes life on a small island. Some questions
that coalesce around governance include:
1. Do pre-existing tourism governance arrangements sufﬁciently address the
need for sustainable tourism development?
2. To what extent do governance structures address local islander input into
the development of tourism?
3. What monitoring and evaluation of tourism governance structures are
CONCLUSION: INDICATING SUSTAINABLE TOURISM ON SMALL ISLANDS
Whether tourism is or is not suited to the sustainable development concerns of small
islands generally is a moot point. The preponderance to veer instinctively towards
tourism is understandable on small islands in lieu of the sparseness of alternative
mechanisms for economic development. This is coupled with pressures not only from
tourism but also from external parties keen to monetize island-based resources as seen
in the increasing drive for seabed mining and the wider blue economy (D’Arcy, 2013).
146 T H E U RG EN C Y F O R S US TA I N A B I LI T Y I N D I CAT O R S
GOVERNANCE FAILURES OCCUR
where the operation of tourism
is not synchronized with stake
holder interests. Gaining wide
stakeholder buyin for tourism
expansion on small islands is
vital, for, in tightknit and small
communities, grounds for
disharmony can have
The imposition of tourism invariably contributes to the reshaping of island contexts,
putting new and often greater demands on the social and ecological inheritances in situ.
What ensues is a regime of economic development often underpinned by external rent
seekers. This comes about because entering the global travel supply chain is beyond the
capacity of local networks requiring externally derived capital and know-how.
Irrespective of the extent to which economic development trickles down into the
hands of islanders, over the long run we would hope that the costs of tourism and the
legacies that remain are largely for them to negotiate. Where a small island’s assets
are parlayed into productive undertakings, questions over the extent to which they are
privileged remains. The overwhelming narrative seen in small islands around the globe
is that the metropolitan centre tends to accumulate the largest share of dividends.
Conversely, if expansionary plans turn sour, external parties retreat far more easily
than islanders who are left to deal with the long-term negative outcomes of narrowly
The urgency to articulate indicators of sustainable tourism development is palpable
because the conceptualization of small islands as ideal tourist escapes will likely
intensify. This can be seen in the continuing allure of small islands to the international
cruise industry. Despite the ongoing increases of port visits, little evidence can be found
to conﬁdently ascertain the extent to which islanders beneﬁt (Cheer, 2017; Del Chiappa
& Abbate, 2016; Lester & Weeden, 2004). This is mirrored in the way small-island ﬁsh-
eries assets have come to be developed and where large-scale factory ﬁshing driven by
foreign corporations has made this a largely unviable endeavour for locals. Looming
large in the futures of small islands is the shadow of climate change, driven by
emissions elsewhere, yet omnipresent on small islands.
Consequently, venturing into tourism intensiﬁcation on small islands is fraught
with contradiction and concern, and unless driven by informed analyses, expansionary
initiatives will likely be counterproductive to sustainable development and resilience
building. Herein lay the implications for a research agenda underpinned by consistent
development of sustainable tourism indicators that help inform tourism development
trajectories. Small islands cannot afford to experience monumental blunders given
their scale, adaptive capacity limitations, and relative fragility. Blindly sailing into
tourism expansion without a clear understanding of the broad range of possible out-
comes puts islanders in a bind—damned if you do or damned if you don’t. Often, this
will be driven by an uncritical economic imperative around jobs, incomes, and other
economic beneﬁts. Yet, what good is a small island that has forsaken its social and
ecological inheritances for the abiding and largely exclusive pursuit of tourism-led
J O S E PH M. C H EE R 147
I would like to sincerely thank Drs. Jim Randall and Laurie Brinklow for helping facili-
tate the inclusion of this paper. I also thank Professor Randall for inviting me to speak
at the International Island Tourism Conference 20‒23 August 2019 from which this
work is derived. Thanks also go to Ms. Li Liyun (Lara) for kindly organizing my visit to
Hainan, and to the Foreign Affairs Ofﬁce of Hainan Island, P.R. China, Institute of Island
Studies, University of Prince Edward Island, and the UNESCO Chair in Island Studies
and Sustainability. Lastly, this would not have happened had Professor Regina
Scheyvens been able to attend. Her withdrawal and subsequent recommendation of
me as her substitute is appreciated.
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