Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 20, 2009

Apples and Oranges and Islands

The subject of the cartoon in front of me is that of the proverbial castaway on a tiny one-palm-tree tropical island. Leaning nonchalantly against the trunk of the tree, and surrounded by recycling containers of every shape and size, he waits. The “joke” is that he is prepared if and when a hyper-consumerist culture invades his simple, lonely world. While the islet is pristine and prepared, there is however nothing happening in this mini-paradise — yet.

I am reminded of the recent National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations (CSD) survey I was invited to be part of as an “online” panelist. Our job was to apply our “informed judgments” and assess and “rate” island destinations around the world using a number of criteria designed in the best scientific survey manner. When the invitation fell into my Inbox I was a tad flattered, and accepted … ahem … humbly but graciously. One must do one’s bit in assessing the current state of affairs — touristic, historical, environmental, cultural — of the islands of our hearts and minds on Planet Earth. From a “geotourism” and “stewardship” point of view, the current reverential buzz words in the business, it is my social and ethical responsibility.

It soon became clear to me that this was not an Island Idol competition, but that I potentially held the fortunes of some unique travel destinations in the palm of my hand. How I marked my score card could, in theory, affect how the general travelling public would perceive or “buy into” some local tourism industries around the world.

As a travel journalist, I am increasingly aware of the ethical implications of what I do, what I say, how I say it — and especially what I don’t say, or inadvertently omit. If, for example, it is obvious that the “native dancers” are rented by the hour and in all likelihood not for very much, how do I tell “the real story” (the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth) without causing harm?

I am very supportive of the general principles and practices of this very focussed Islands Destination Stewardship Survey and of the policies and procedures of the National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations. I agree with National Geo’s premise that island destinations are very prone to excessive tourism and over-development. In my view, this is due in part to a kind of Jungian, archetypal image that island destinations evoke in us. As Albert Camus wrote, “Generally, I like all islands. There, it is easier to rule.” I recognize the importance of the “integrity of place” the Center has committed itself to and the concept of geotourism, which differs from sustainable tourism (“First do no harm”) by adding a “geographical character” component to the island in question thus emphasizing and (one hopes) preserving its distinctiveness.

But something in the survey process bothered me. As one of 522 “experts” –I am not sure why I was identified thus — I “ruled” on 111 pre-selected island destinations, ultimately helping assign them a “value” of anything from “catastrophic” to “enhanced” based on criteria such as environmental quality and ecological quality; social and cultural integrity; condition of historic buildings and archaeological sites; aesthetic appeal; quality of tourism management; and outlook for the future. These are all well and good, but subjective. And the more I travel on this planet, the more I become aware of my (quite normal) ethnocentric biases. One traveller’s island paradise maybe another’s “God get me out of this forlorn place.”

In another incarnation, I was a high school teacher for 32 years and required to do constant assessments of my “kids,” often using pre-determined computer-generated report card comments. I still worry about the impact of my hurried evaluations of those tender souls, especially the comment “Could Try Harder.” The latter was the one we often used when it was difficult to articulate the “status” of a very complex young person.

For a personal assessment of a wonderful island destination, see Vancouver Island: Insula Pacifica Gloriosa.

Conserving Cuba, After the Embargo

In response to this commentary, Susan Wallis (See Once Upon a Gîte in Languedoc) drew our attention to the above article from The New York Times.


This article was first published in Emag, the inflight magazine of Eastern Airways, one of the UK’s principal regional airlines.

To download a PDF copy of this inflight magazine, click here.

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