One day ahead of World Tourism Day, APISALOME MOVONO of the USP's School of Tourism and Hospitality Management asks the question: Is tourism the ultimate solution to our economic woes?
THE tourism industry has become a solution to receding agricultural economies of many nations, including those that were once colonies in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
Tourism development has been heavily supported by less developed countries for its potential to promote economic growth, increase employment opportunities and improve the social standards of states, particularly, those with limited capacity for growth and development.
Similarly, tourism has also been a central force in supporting the economies of many SIDS (Small Island Developing States) in the South Pacific which were once primarily dependent on sugar and copra as their main source of foreign exchange.
In periods following the drop in world agricultural prices, tourism provided support for these "young" nation states. By the end of the 20th century, tourism had progressed to the forefront of economic growth and development in many Pacific Island countries including Fiji.
Today Fiji, like many former small island colonies, relies on tourism as the backbone of its economy and the key contributor to growth and development in Fiji during the Global Financial Crisis.
Tourism has been viewed as the ideal industry for Fiji and other SIDS because of its non-extractive nature, and because it capitalises on its tropical environment and culture. Pacific Island countries face immense challenges in building the base of their economies because of their geographical isolation, limited terrestrial resources and infrastructure; Fiji's case is no different.
Fiji's geographical characteristics, with limited land mass, limited mineral resources (limited to gold and some potential for nickel and copper) and poor industrial capacities topped by its unstable political image, have conditioned the nature of Fiji's economy and development.
The limited development options available for a SIDS such as Fiji make tourism the most attractive option despite the risks of being a highly volatile industry.
In Fiji's case, tourism has been going on for more than 60 years and has been the highest employer and foreign exchange earner since the 1960s. Tourism has continued to be the key driver of economic recovery and has continued to support Fiji's economy, despite the coups in 1987, 2000 and 2006, which hindered Fiji's economic performance.
The 1987 coup caused a 26 per cent decline in arrivals, the 2000 coup caused a 28 per cent decline in arrivals and 29 per cent decline in earnings, whilst in 2006 only a 1 per cent reduction in visitor arrivals was observed with a 5 per cent decline in earnings.
This trend, to some extent, is the result of heavy discounting and marketing, but also shows the resilience of tourism to the political environment in Fiji.
During the onset of the current Global Financial Crisis, tourism stood as the key driver of the growth of 1.8 per cent of Fiji's economy as at May, 2010. It accounted for about 30 per cent of Fiji's Gross Domestic Product and brought in about $820 million, compared to the sugar industry with $200m.
The total number of people employed directly in tourism stood at 39,000, accounting for about one-third of Fiji's employment sector. These numbers demonstrate just how "ideal" an option tourism has become, and it has been continually supported by Fiji's elected and non-elected leadership from post-colonial times through to the present.
In 2010, $23.5m was provided to the tourism sector as part of budgetary allocations by the government and a further $23.5m was approved for 2011.
Other policies, including the Surfing Decree , tax incentives, marketing campaigns and Open Skies Policy, are being pursued by the government to increase tourism's economic potential.
Despite Fiji's negative political image and poor relations with its major source markets, tourism arrivals remained strong and breached the 600,000 mark in 2010. It is predicted to earn a record $1.2billion by 2016.
Interestingly, tourism is also an industry that involves complex economic, physical and social activities, which have varying impacts on the host economy, environment and communities. This is important when considering countries in the Pacific, which highly value and hold close associations with the environment and their cultural resources and traditions.
According to Butler's Destination Life Cycle Model (1980), once the exploration phase is triggered, a destination may begin a typical cycle of development and can progress through to maturity, decline and/or rejuvenation.
During this process, it is suggested that often-irreversible changes in culture, economics, and society may occur. Furthermore, some changes may, to varying extents, prompt elements of discontent and irritation amongst host communities.
In fact, as well as raising standards of living, tourism contributes to changes in behaviour, culture and tradition of Pacific island communities. It is also perceived to place immense pressures on such social institutions as the family, church and the village, especially for indigenous populations.
These views are supported more by critics inclined towards underdevelopment theory, who blame tourism as the cause of many social ills.
The domination of less-developed countries' tourism industries by multi-national corporations (MNCs) is well known. This is true as well for Fiji, with the operation of large multinational hotels (as well as a number of smaller, locally owned lodges, backpacker hotels and the Tanoa group of hotels) such as the Shangri-La's Sheraton, Hilton, Westin Sofitel and Novotel to name a few, which usually operate on special management contracts.
These hotels are often partly owned by local stakeholders such as the Fiji Teachers Union (Hideaway Resort) and the Fiji National Provident Fund, which has invested in a number of properties, including the Intercontinental Resort at Natadola.
These hotels employ large numbers of local people, mainly in roles with low wages and very few benefits. Furthermore, the import appetites of these multinational chains are also well-known, but arguably necessary in maintaining high standards and brand image since local capacities and linkages are not well-established. Hence, high importation and leakages, coupled with the repatriation of profits, are socio-economic realities faced in many SIDS including Fiji.
The United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights, Agenda 21, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the United Nations' stance on sustainable development have strengthened awareness of the need to protect biodiversity and promote and conserve indigenous cultures.
Tourism has been central as a key industry with the potential to promote sustainability but has also been blamed by some for causing changes in key socio-economic aspects of communities closely involved with tourism. Nonetheless, because of the conflict between development and conservation, destination-based studies are required to explore and validate claims surrounding tourism's impacts and assess its contribution to the development of local communities.
The development of local indigenous communities remain a much discussed issue and most governments in the Pacific are actively searching for tools and means by which this can be attained. Tourism has been identified as a tool with which the development of indigenous communities can be realised.
In the Pacific and, more importantly, in Fiji, this has been shown and is continually being promoted because of its contributions to the economy and as a means by which local indigenous communities can be advanced.
Existing literature, although limited, suggests that the benefits and disadvantages of tourism vary and its impacts are viewed differently from individual to individual and from culture to culture.
There have been many debates concerning the perceived benefits of tourism. Questions arise whether or not cultural exchange is beneficial. However, what is important for developing nations is that a clear perspective is gained on particular destinations, so that benchmarks are established to measure its impacts.
For a Pacific Island developing state such as Fiji, having accurate benchmarks is vital for the measurement of a valued and highly-encouraged industry such as tourism. Accurate evidence and well-balanced viewpoints are essential for planning and achieving sustainable development for rural communities and their way of life.
Proper understanding will allow for conclusions to be drawn on how to balance impacts and improve benefits derived from tourism for the long-term.