Responsible tourism in the South Pacific

Tourism is hugely important to the South Pacific but the region is increasingly vulnerable due to climate change, with rising sea levels predicted to render some islands uninhabitable within a generation or so. Add to that the dangers caused by plastic pollution in the oceans and the effect of massive cruise ships and mass tourism on vulnerable local communities and you’ll see that it’s more important than ever that the industry is managed with an eye both on the environment and on local populations. Individual tourists also have to bear responsibility and should support local businesses across the country at every level possible, and educate themselves about the very real impacts their actions have on these fragile environments, both whilst on holiday and at home.

Climate change & rising seas

The South Pacific islands may be far flung and relatively isolated but that doesn’t mean that they’re immune from the world’s problems. On the contrary; the islands’ scale and ecological sensitivity means that they are among the most vulnerable nations in the world, in particular to the impact of climate change; and since tourism is responsible for about 5 percent of global CO2 emissions we can all make decisions that lessen our impact on these fragile countries.

Melting ice caps and the expansion of water, caused by warmer temperatures, have caused the world’s sea levels to increase by around 20cm since the first recordings in 1880. The annual rise has been decidedly faster over the past 20 years – around double that of the previous century – and by 2100 it is estimated that sea levels will have risen by around 2 metres. As sea levels rise, low lying coral atolls face extinction – and if they continue to rise at their current rate, low lying islands such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Vanuatu could be fully submerged within decades. A handful of island nations have made plans to relocate their entire populations to other countries, such as New Zealand, should climate change make their land uninhabitable.

It is not only sea levels that are affected, however. Higher temperatures are changing weather patterns and causing stronger cyclones and hurricanes – and increasing the devastation they bring with them. Coral islands and reefs across the South Pacific also face bleaching from temperature changes in global warming that are heating up the world’s oceans. It’s estimated that coral bleaching will become an annual event by 2050, killing reefs and sweeping away entire shorelines.

Cruise Ships

These floating behemoths are making inroads in the South Pacific, pulling into ports such as Fiji, French Polynesia, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Air and water pollution and a general lack of transparency where environmental impact is concerned make this an unwelcome trend – not to mention the negative impacts on the small communities in which they land. Many mangrove forests were felled to create the cruise liner marina in Denarau Port, Fiji, for example, and as the majority of tourists head to the western islands of Mamanuca and Yasawa, other island economies, such as Taveuni, have next to nothing to show for it. Large cruise ships also help to destroy coral and in so doing damage the fragile ecosystems surrounding the islands and atolls of the South Pacific.

What you can do
If you’re keen on a water-based adventure, go with a small ship cruise operator instead. They rarely carry more than 70 passengers and ships are typically well maintained to reduce pollution, with waste disposed of responsibly. They are supported by a crew that’s often from the local islands and have a focus on wildlife and responsible cultural interactions. What’s more, your small ship cruise may actually be integral to the life of the islands it visits, bringing valuable supplies to remote communities.

Plastic pollution

Litter is a huge problem in the South Pacific Islands, with bottled water a particular environmental issue; not only is a huge amount of energy consumed in its production, the bottles are a major source of rubbish on the islands and it’s a daily fight for those in the tourist industry to keep the beaches clean. It’s floating plastic debris that makes the headlines, though, with millions of tons ending up in the ocean every year, from as far afield as Germany and Canada. This kills wildlife from birds to turtles as they either get trapped by it or eat it, thinking the items are food. Indeed, tiny, remote Henderson Island, in the Pitcairn Island group, has the highest density of rubbish in the world, with an estimated 38 million pieces of plastic found on and under its shores.

What you can do
You can do your bit by carrying and refilling your own water bottle with filtered or boiled water, or using a self filtering bottle. Alternatively, purchase large bottles of mineral water to decant you’re your own bottle, to try and keep plastic waste down. Some companies will provide their own water bottles which are refilled each day with filtered or UV sterilised drinking water. Always dispose of your rubbish responsibly and, if travelling by boat, never allow rubbish to fall into the sea. As well as practising the Leave No Trace principles when at sea, commit to no longer playing a part in the plastic takeover of the oceans while you’re at home, too.

Responsible tourism advice

Kirsty Bamby, from our supplier Island Spirit: “Responsible tourism on Fiji is about listening to the needs of local communities and finding out how an experience can be beneficial to both sides. Gaining access to a village via a locally owned tour company is all about trust and respect as you’ll find explained by village elders in an authentic welcoming ceremony. Tourism in Fiji is happening, and if it’s not done with respect and integrity by companies that have an environmental and responsible travel ethos then it’s going to be done by yet another faceless international corporation who are only interested in one thing: money.”
The Pacific islands are ecologically vulnerable – so you must dive and snorkel responsibly to preserve the beauty of the underwater world. Never stand on corals, minimise your disturbance of marine animals and be careful in underwater caves as your air bubbles can damage fragile organisms. If you are swimming, snorkelling or diving, please do remember that any products you are wearing on your body get absorbed into the marine environment. Such as sun creams, body lotion, shampoos and so on. Bring environmentally sound products with you and keep the oceans clean. Although many South Pacific islanders benefit from urban infrastructure projects, much of the money raised through tourism bypasses the local economy and goes directly into the pockets of foreign investors. Staying at a locally owned guesthouse, using local guides and visiting island communities away from the main tourist hubs helps to spread the wealth and promote practices that are essential for maintaining a sustainable future. Your money will go much further and will reach those who genuinely need it. More conservative dress is appropriate in the South Pacific. Men shouldn’t walk around bare chested away from the beach, and in remote areas shouldn’t go bare chested at all. The same goes for women – skirts should be knee length and bikinis should be put aside in favour of t-shirts and board shorts if you’re going to take a dip on a far flung isle. If you’re invited to church, turn up in your fanciest threads – it would be rude not to make an effort. When you arrive as a guest in these small communities, remember that you shouldn’t take photos without asking first – it’s rude and offensive. Learn a couple of words of the local language, and exchange smiles and conversation with local people before you even think of taking your camera out. It may seem obvious, but it is amazing how many people think it is fine to stick beach stones in their pockets as souvenirs. It isn’t fine. Same goes for shells, volcanic rocks, animal parts, native wood or flora. Although coral crafted souvenirs may look tempting, buying this sort of product perpetuates the practice of picking it, so please leave coral underwater. If swimming with humpback whales you should allow them to control the nature and duration of the encounter, and you should leave the water at any sign of distress, particularly when it comes to mothers and calves. Make sure you go with a responsible operator who’ll ensure that no more than four people enter the water with the whales at a time.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Chris Isherwood] [Climate change: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] [Kirsty Bamby Quote: Brian]
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