Published on 11th June 2013
Development specialist Regina Scheyvens says tourism has a lot to offer developing countries, but as she tells Ruth Nichol, it’s important to focus on a range of tourism activities and to have realistic expectations about what is possible.
Tourism can play an important role in alleviating poverty in the Pacific, according to Regina Scheyvens, Professor of Development Studies at Massey University.
However, she warns that it is important to have realistic expectations about what can be achieved – and she says that some Pacific countries are better placed to develop their tourism sector than others.
“A lot of governments, both in the Pacific and in other parts of the developing world, make exaggerated claims about what they think tourism can do,” she says. “But it’s not a panacea – it’s not the answer to every tropical island’s economic problems.”
Professor Scheyvens specialises in tourism and poverty alleviation. She has written two books about the subject, most recently Tourism and Poverty published in 2010, as well as many academic articles.
She says that over the last 20 years the value of the tourism sector in the Pacific has risen, while the income generated from export commodities such as copra has fallen in real terms.
“The tourism sector is definitely growing, even following the global financial crisis. In some Pacific island countries tourism is already making a major contribution to the economy, and it could do that in other countries as well.”
According to Professor Schyevens, countries such as Vanuatu, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Fiji are in a good position to further develop their tourism industries, largely because they are relatively cheap and easy to get to, and because they have the infrastructure needed to support a growing tourism industry.
“Vanuatu, for example, has a long history of involvement with tourism partly due to the French influence; a lot of tourists go there from New Caledonia. And of course Vanuatu hasn’t faced any significant political conflict. International tourists are very fickle and if there is political conflict, or a natural disaster like a cyclone, they will cancel their bookings and go somewhere else.”
However, she says even countries such as Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, which are more difficult to get to, and have experienced recent civil unrest, are well placed to establish niche tourism markets. These include providing experiences for backpackers and adventure tourists.
“The importance of backpackers’ spending cannot be measured simply by the total amount they spend: rather it is magnified due to the fact that much of the money they spend stays within communities,” says Professor Scheyvens.
She says it’s also important for Pacific countries to develop their domestic tourism markets.
“Domestic tourism can often be a more reliable source of income. Domestic tourists include local people, as well as vacationing expats. They could be a group of staff from a government department who go on a retreat to some beach bungalows to discuss their mission statement.”
Perhaps more controversially, Professor Scheyvens believes the private sector has an important role to play in helping developing countries use tourism as a way of alleviating poverty.
She believes the secret to success lies in a combination of small, locally owned tourism ventures and those run by large private companies that are genuinely committed to working in partnership with local communities.
“I really like the beach fale model in Samoa, where small-scale ventures are run by local families,” she says. “I used to think that was the way all good tourism should be structured. But the fact is that most tourists want a conventional experience they can book through a travel agent, with a higher level of comfort than a beach fale, and a choice of activities and food available onsite. And that kind of experience can really only be offered by the larger-scale ventures.”
According to Professor Scheyvens, responsibly run, foreign-owned tourism companies can contribute to economic growth in the Pacific in several ways. The first is by providing jobs – and fair wages and conditions – to local staff. The second is by providing training and mentoring to local people so they gain the skills they need to set up their own tourism ventures.
“A number of Pacific Islanders who now own their own tourism businesses were initiated into international tourism through working in a foreign-owned resort or hotel.”
The third way is by buying as many locally produced goods and services as possible. Examples include using local tour operators and local taxi services, selling local crafts to tourists and, wherever possible, buying locally grown food. By doing these three things, large private sector companies can make a real difference to the lives of local people.
“It’s not a case of concentrating of just one kind of tourism, rather than another,” says Professor Scheyvens. “It’s important to diversify the tourism market as much as possible.”