Socially and Economically Sustainable Tourism

Tourism in the South Pacific presents very unique challenges for native islanders and local governments. Due to limitations created by resources, transportation and isolation, these islands often must rely on tourism as the backbone of industry and economy (Wilkinson 158). The development of a tourism industry can drastically change the character of an area because of the impacts of growth and urbanization (Wilkinson 162). In order to become socially and economically sustainable, tourism in French Polynesia and Kiritibati must be integrated into a broader development plan that is produced with and necessitates local involvement.

Tourism in Tahiti has grown quickly from the preliminary 1960’s boom to 160,000 visitors in 2012 (Papeete City Hall). Coming by way of the airport, cruise ships and sail boats, tourists from across the world visit what is often stereotyped as a stunning ocean playground. In reality, tourism in Tahiti is limited to all-inclusive five-star resorts and western amenities in the urban center of Papeete. In contrast, the islands of Fakarava and Nuku Hiva, both also part of French Polynesia, demonstrate ways for tourism to succeed in island economies. Visitors come to these islands for a more organic experience—excited to enjoy the outdoors, interact with locals, and scuba dive (Fakarava City Hall). These smaller islands, with one main road and limited retail or food options, make it nearly impossible to avoid meeting local people and slipping into the slower pace of life. Lastly, Kiritimati presents an entirely different case study. Part of an independent nation, the isolation and limited resource base make it difficult for the local governments to develop a booming tourism industry. Drawing a very niche crowd, most tourists in Kiritimati are men who come to “rough it” while surfing and fishing with their close friends. At different stages and in different sectors of the industry, together these islands reveal the pitfalls and successes of tourism development in remote countries.

There are several issues that can arise once multinational companies build all-inclusive resorts to accommodate the influx of visitors to an area. Hotels strategically prevent tourists from venturing outside the comfortable and familiar environment. These resorts are often grouped on popular beaches, creating an additional physical separation between locals and guests (Britton 341). An entire hospitality industry could be developed without any significant local involvement. The Intercontinental Resort in Tahiti is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Extremely secluded, this massive resort is owned by an American and provides all the amenities on site that tourists desire.

In the last ten years, there has been a sharp decline in tourism to Tahiti as big resorts closed and cruise lines left. The island has become a mere stopover destination for short stays before tourists continue on to nearby islands (Papeete Tourism Center). In 1988, the occupancy rate for all hotels in French Polynesia was 51% (Tourism Development 2). However, data collected on Tahiti indicates there are only 101 tourists per available room over the course of one year. Estimating occupancy rates from this figure suggests that there are too many rooms available and not enough tourists to fill them. One way to restructure and strengthen the industry is through increased local involvement with tourists. Fostering strong relationships between locals and foreigners will help create a positive environment where visitors want to spend a considerable amount of time and return for multiple visits. This new system of development, centered on the local population and economy, must be implemented in order to make the tourism industry socially and economically sustainable in the future. Protecting the culture and wealth of South Pacific islands must be a top priority.

The creation of organized activities in the host community, such as giving tourists an opportunity to visit historical sites with an archaeologist or take a boat trip with local fisherman, fosters much richer host-guest interactions. Trips that are run and staffed by local people can take guests to unique community markets, restaurants, or attractions where they are able to get a taste of life on the islands. According to a study, “the degree to which the tourist industry is established and linked to other parts of the economy is directly related to the ability of tourism to generate local income and employment” (Milne 206). When tourists are given the opportunity to interact with the community, local people reap the economic benefits that come from building viable regional businesses and island culture is enhanced.

Nuku Hiva provides an example of a location where tourist activities focus on island heritage and culture. As Carol Ivory outlined in Art, Tourism, and Cultural Revival in the Marquesas Islands, “traditional ceremonies, unique handicrafts, and the extended families and intricate village-based social structures of the islands offer a fascinating contrast to the everyday lives of the majority of visitors” (197). In the midst of a cultural revival, the local government is acutely aware of tourism’s cultural ramifications. While striving to draw 10,000 additional tourists in the next five years, local representatives remain aware of the need to strike a balance so as to assure that tourism does not change the local way of life. Attracting a very niche traveler, “green tourists” come to Nuku Hiva to hike, see waterfalls and visit archaeological sites (Nuku Hiva City Hall). Despite the presence of large hotels such as the Keikahanui Pearl Lodge, it is understood that local culture must be acknowledged, protected, and enhanced if locals are going to support the influx of tourists.

Another important aspect of socially and economically sustainable tourism requires the development of locally owned and managed facilities that provide travelers with a more authentic experience. Unlike the high-rise developments created by international corporations, these smaller lodges can provide more personal attention to their guests and create individualized experiences. These accommodations foster easy assimilation into the community and unique activities that can effectively compliment local culture (Wilkinson 170). Known as pensions, small bed-and-breakfast resorts are cheaper and offer charming ocean-side bungalows often equivalent to those found at high-end resorts. Acknowledging the importance of a locally dominated industry, local governments offer financial aid to pension owners to help them compete with large hotels (Fakarava City Hall). Additionally, with fewer units to support, research has shown that these businesses use fewer imports and more island resources (Milne 205).

The island of Kiribati is a wonderful example of integrated tourism development. The relatively small number of tourists visiting the island each year allows for an industry that is almost entirely locally owned. Locals receive over 70% of direct tourist expenditures, thanks largely to “indigenous ownership” of facilities and the locally run sport fishing market (Milne 200). Although tourism plays a very small role in the local economy, visitors that do come have almost have no choice but to interact with locals.  For example, the Tekabaia Motel is a family operation owned by a father and run by his daughter. The motel provides home-cooked meals and local fishing guides; an entryway filled with surfboards and kayaks underscores the priority of most visitors.  The Villages pension can host less than 15 guests at one time and days are scheduled around fishing trips. Beginning early with a wake up call and breakfast at 6:15am, guests then depart with a local guide at 7:00am for a full day of fishing. With a ratio of guides to guests that is nearly 1:1, personal attention is assured when staying at The Villages. 

Similarly, the Tetamanu Village pension in Fakarava provides stunning oceanside bungalows identical to those seen at the nearby German-owned White Sand Beaches Resort. Run by four locals and using only solar energy, guests are picked up from the airport by boat and guided through the UNESCO biosphere and ocean reefs by local staff. Not scared away by the simplicity and lack of familiar western amenities, up to 60 visitors per month come to stay at this gorgeous retreat. The island as a whole receives nearly 21 tourists per local per year, and 202 tourists fill each available room on the island over the course of the year—indicative of an industry that generates significant local income and employment.

Both Kiritimati and Fakarava certainly attract a unique kind of visitor, one possibly classified as a “traveler” rather than a “tourist” because of the desire to look beyond the familiar and comfortable, to meet new people and to try new experiences. By connecting visitors to island culture, knowledge is shared, relationships are developed, and the industry thrives.

As it stands today, money spent by visitors in Tahiti largely ends up in the hands of foreign firms and the island’s communities see very few benefits. With less than one tourist visiting per year for every person living on the island, and far more hotel rooms than pension units, the tourism industry does not play as big a role in the local economy as expected. Unless tourism redirects focus to local culture, as is starting to be done in foreword thinking places such as Nuku Hiva, local people will be little more than props that are exploited. Local governments must incorporate tourism into their larger plans and goals (Wilkinson 153). Small islands such as Kiritimati and Fakarava have an opportunity to benefit from the size and youth of their tourism industries. With over 60% of the rooms available on these islands found in pensions, a system is created where tourism can compliment local culture. Agricultural workers should meet with tourist operators to discover what resources can be provided locally. Revenue earned on the island should not go straight back into the tourism industry, but should also be reinvested into local services and facilities (Milne 209). Creating a society where foreigners coexist with islanders requires asking locals for input and listening to their suggestions. Thankfully, many islands do appear to understand that creating a socially and economically sustainable tourism industry is the best chance for a prosperous future.

Jennifer Binkowski, University of Denver

Bosoa, Atanimango. Kirimati City Hall Presentation. 4 Mar 2013. Kirimati Island.

Bouteau, Nicole and Lichtle, Natea. Papeete City Hall Presentation. 31 Jan. 2013. Papeete, Tahiti.

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Hikutini, Taurei. Papeete Tourism Center Presentation. 31 Jan 2013. Papeete, Tahiti.

Ivory, Carol S. "Art, Tourism, and Cultural Revival in the Marquesas Islands." Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds. By Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher Burghard. Steiner. Berkeley: University of California, 1999. 316-33. Print.

Kaimitete, Deborah. Deputy mayor. Nuku Hiva City Hall Presentation. 15 Feb 2013. Nuku Hiva.

Milne, Simon. "Tourism and Development in South Pacific Microstates." Annals of Tourism Research 19.2 (1992): 191-212. Science Direct. Web.

Tourism Development in French Polynesia. School of Travel Industry Management. University of Hawaii at Manoa, 26 Oct. 2006.

Tu, Rosalie and Burns, Freddy. Fakarava City Hall Presentation. 5 Feb 2013. Rotoava, Fakarava.

Wilkinson, Paul F. "Strategies for Tourism in Island Microstates." Annals of Tourism Research 16.2 (1989): 153-77. Science Direct. Web.

How to cite this page: 
Jennifer Binkowski. “Socially and Economically Sustainable Tourism,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2013.  Web. [Date accessed]  <html>