Block Island looks to sustainable tourism

Thu, 12/16/2021 - 7:00am

The Town Council voted unanimously to work with the Tourism Council on a Social and Environmental Sustainability Plan for Block Island Tourism. Executive Director of the Tourism Council, Jess Willi, appeared before the council to explain that Dr. Megan Epler Wood, a world-renowned researcher in the field of sustainable tourism, and her company, EplerWood International, have agreed to work with Dr. Jack Spengier at the Harvard School of Public Health, to prepare a Social and Environmental Sustainability Action Plan for Block Island Tourism. As part of the study, two master’s research students will come for a two-semester
internship to study tourism on Block Island under the supervision of Dr. Epler Wood.
According to the proposal by Epler Wood, the goal is “create a data-enriched, illustrated overview of the key issues raised for managing tourism on Block Island. The goal of the report would be to help the island ensure that tourism does not overburden the island’s infrastructure, cause environmental harm, or drive social and cultural damage to the local population.” Epler Wood goes on to say in her proposal that the report can be used to guide decision making on managing tourism, “based on understanding what pressures can be alleviated, with recommended actions.”

Willi told the council that participating in the study “would put us at the forefront of sustainable tourism,” saying also that the ways tourism affects the global climate is “huge.” Willi said she had first heard Epler Wood speak several years ago and had finally been able to get her to make a presentation to the Tourism Council at its
annual meeting this past fall.
Council Member Keith Stover, who attended the talk at the Tourism Council meeting, said that one concern he had was that many of the examples and case studies Epler Wood presented were “sovereign states,” which allowed the governments to enact policies that are not possible on Block Island. In Epler Wood’s presentation
she talked about countries strictly limiting the numbers of tourists and charging fees to cover the environmental cost of tourists.
“The truth is, we don’t control the means of accessing the island,” Stover said, referring to the fact that ferry access is controlled by Interstate Navigation and commercial airplane access is controlled by New England Airlines. He recommended that the interns studying Block Island be aware of “the limits of what we can do” when working on recommendations.

Willi assured the council that she and the Tourism Council had spoken to Epler Wood about some of the limitations and challenges, and had stressed to her that any recommendations have to be “actionable items.”
Calling the plan “data-driven” and “very proactive,” Willi asked the Town Council to make themselves available to answer questions and provide insight to the researchers, and to allow town staff to do the same. In her proposal Epler Wood said the data collected and conclusions drawn on Block Island could contribute to her work at Cornell University to create a Sustainable Destination management certificate program with Cornell and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).