The “invisible burden of tourism”
The Tourism Council had a featured presentation by Megan Epler Wood of EplerWood International, an international consulting company that focuses on sustainable tourism economies that invest in improved local well-being, as part of its annual meeting at the Spring House on Oct. 6.
Executive Director Jessica Willi introduced Epler Wood as a descendant of James Sands, whose name appears on Settler’s Rock at the north end of the island. Willi said she had first heard Epler Wood speak on the “invisible burden of tourism,” and had invited her to address the Tourism Council on this topic.
Epler Wood described tourism, in general, as being traditionally managed as an “economic growth opportunity” in the “short term,” with little regard given to the sustainability of the industry in any particular place. She described the problems that begin to crop up with tourism over time, such as housing shortages, public safety issues, and excess utility usage. These types of problems can have an effect on the local environment and feelings of social
well-being, a phenomenon she called the “invisible burden of tourism” on ecosystems and biodiversity, exacerbating tensions in the local community between the “haves and the have-nots,” and leading to feelings of “over-tourism.”
Epler Wood mentioned the initiatives of the Tourism Council to counteract some of these feelings in the community, such as the “How to love Block Island” campaign, which works to show tourists how to act while they are here. She discussed several initiatives in other tourist destinations that are geared toward “balancing economic growth with environmental and social well-being.”
For instance, in Hawaii, after the pandemic travel restrictions were lifted, citizens protested a return to “business as usual,” pushing instead to reclaim natural areas and what they considered a more “normal way of life.” In Iceland, after several years of promoting tourism, the government realized that the local population could not financially support the costs to protect their resources and environment, and pushed for more sustainable growth. In New Zealand, the government realized the taxes collected were inadequate to protect the nation’s natural beauty and resources, so the nation
implemented a specific charge to visitors of $23, which goes directly to the protection of the environment.
These types of thought processes and measures, according to Epler Wood, help to make tourism part of the solution, as tourism can then directly contribute to the local infrastructure and protection of natural resources. She said it is important to connect the consumption of resources to the tourist, and to make sure the tourist is actually paying, through surcharges and fees, what their tourism actually costs the community.
Epler Wood suggested using green-house gas emissions to measure tourism and developing a climate action plan to address how the tourism industry affects the natural environment. She said that measuring water and electric usage, as well as waste production, can inform the community on how much tourists are costing the island’s resources, and can help lead to a better understanding of tourism and its “invisible burden.”
The council held the business portion of the annual meeting before the speaker presentation and re-elected its officers. There were no changes, with President David Houseman, Vice-Presidents Logan Chase and Julie Kiley, Secretary John Cullen, and Treasurer Julie Fuller all retaining their posts.