Revitalising remote communities: the idea of ‘sustainable tourism’

The following article is by Sharon Blackie originally appeared on the Earthlines Magazine blog and is a very interesting read for anyone interested in the challenges of balancing tourism, access and sustainability in some of our most beautiful areas. Many thanks to Sharon for allowing us permission to re-post it here:

When we moved to this most remote south-western corner of the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis in 2010, we did so precisely because of its remoteness. We were looking for a quiet place, as far as it is possible to get in this too-cluttered country from the consumption-driven madness of the ‘civilised’ world. One of the many reasons we loved this region called Uig was that it was still unspoilt by an excess of tourism. Because, to us, the words ‘spoilt’ and ‘tourism’ have generally gone together. Tourism can be a very different thing from travelling. It can imply enormous camper vans that are too big for small single-track roads (too big even for their passing places) and that empty their chemical loos all over grazing land (yes, I know: not all camper van owners are so inconsiderate, but sadly many are); too-fast too-impatient cars driving at breakneck never-enough-time city speed, mowing down lambs as they go. It can imply too much inappropriate development – development that exploits a place rather than teaching people to respect and treasure it. It can imply curious people stopping and staring through your fence at you when you’re working on the croft as if you were some kind of museum piece or in a petting zoo. It can imply coachloads of tourists buying up mugs and teatowels that are mass-produced by children in China. It can imply stepping out of the car for a moment and ‘looking at the view’ – or photgraphing it – rather than truly putting yourself into a wild place and going with the flow. In short, it can imply damaging – to the environment, to the culture of a place, and to the inhabitants of that place getting on with doing their work.

I understand that I’ve focused on just one type of tourist experience in the previous paragraph. I understand that by no means all tourists are like this, and that walkers and many other travellers certainly are not. But I’ve lived in a couple of other remote and beautiful places where tourists have a tendency to take over for a good 50% of the year, and if your livelihood doesn’t depend on tourists and yet you’re still trying to manage animals and run a business, the all-too-frequent thoughtlessness can be immensely frustrating and so colours your perception.

You can imagine, then, hobbled as we were by this backpack of past negative experiences, that when we first heard that our beautiful wild region of Uig had won a ‘competition’ to build a remote-access St Kilda Centre just three miles down our narrow, windy single-track road, our first and instinctive reaction was horror. And yet now, two years later, we’re strong supporters of the Centre and I’m on its local development group.

What changed?

What changed for us was a deeper, more thoughtful and above all realistic analysis of the situation that remote communities like ours find themselves in today. In the early part of the last century this region, like the rest of the Western Isles, hosted a number of strong crofting communities. But like many such locations, depopulation has hit it hard. Depending on the quality of the land you were working and the extent of it, crofting alone rarely ever provided the means to live, but when it was combined with an activity like fishing or Harris tweed weaving, it generally offered enough for a family to get by. Nowadays, even that is rarely sufficient, especially for a family with children. We can argue about why that is, including the ever-increasing desire for more stuff, and the need to pay for things that are wanted but that can’t be produced on the croft, like computers and television. But the fact remains that in remote communities like this one, there are very few jobs and opportunities for young people. And so young people leave the crofts for education and experience, or to find more challenging work – or even just work that pays a decent wage. They rarely return. This trend can kill a community, for a community can’t thrive without its children, without the next generation to dig in deep and build on its heritage. And so more and more once-healthy and active crofting townships on this and other islands run the risk of turning into retirement villages, villages full of holiday homes – or of being deserted altogether. If you want a community to have a strong future, you need not only to provide jobs, but to engender a sense of pride in the place, and above all a sense of belonging.

That future is precisely what the original bid for the St Kilda Centre, by the people of the crofting township of Manghursta here in Uig, focused on. The right kind of development might mean that some of the children could stay here, might open up the possibility of growing a strong and resilient community again, while still protecting the land, the Gaelic culture, and everything that makes this place rare and precious. It’s very hard to argue with that. The Centre of course was always intended to celebrate the natural and cultural heritage of St Kilda, but many aspects of that natural and cultural uniqueness are still alive and well – albeit threatened – today in this region of Uig.

It’s also hard to argue with the need to keep large numbers of people off the fragile and precious World Heritage island of St Kilda, which is why the idea of a St Kilda Centre was posited in the first place. It was conceived of as a remote-access facility precisely because problems of physical access as well as environmental concerns make it impractical and undesirable to base such a centre on St Kilda itself.

What is it that’s special about St Kilda, anyway? For me, so many things that it’s hard to know where to start. When the Scottish government was applying for St Kilda to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, their nomination document said this:

‘Few who have been to St Kilda and stood in the Village surrounded by the cries of a million seabirds can fail to have been moved by the place and its story. This tiny Hebridean archipelago is a place of drama, a place apart. Its inaccessibility amplifies its remoteness creating a perception of being “at the edge of the world”. While the steep cliffs and pounding seas around the archipelago give a sense of the overwhelming power of nature, the very visible remains of human habitation can only fill the visitor with a sense of awe and respect for past generations of inhabitants. St Kilda stands for isolated societies the world over. The extraordinary spirit of the place comes from the imprint left after the ultimate failure, largely through external pressures, of a way of life. The twin aspects – a people’s resilience in a hostile environment, and the contrasting fragility of traditional ways of life in the face of overwhelming social and economic change – give the place its emotional power and universal applicability.’

St Kilda successfully achieved World Heritage status [‘World Heritage properties are unique treasures of humanity. These natural and cultural wonders have outstanding universal value, represent our past and present, and belong to all. They provide an important narrative of environmental and historical development and serve as foundations for contemporary social identity’] and now UNESCO is supporting the development of the St Kilda Centre as a case study for ‘remote access’ and ‘sustainable tourism’.

This concept of ‘sustainable tourism’ advocated by UNESCO is by no means a new one and it certainly isn’t without its complexities and challenges – and its critics. But it is nevertheless an important concept for remote communities based in wild places, as a 2009 UNESCO report makes clear (http://whc.unesco.org/en/tourism/):

‘If undertaken responsibly, tourism can be a driver for preservation and conservation of cultural and natural heritage and a vehicle for sustainable development. But if unplanned or not properly managed, tourism can be socially, culturally and economically disruptive, and have a devastating effect on fragile environments and local communities. … sustainable tourism relies on the development and delivery of quality visitor experiences that do not degrade or damage any of the Property’s natural or cultural values and visitor attraction. UNESCO believes that tourism development should enhance the visitor’s understanding and appreciation of the all heritage values through interpretation, presentation and visitor services. ’

So what exactly does ‘sustainable tourism’ mean?

The phrase began to be widely used a couple of decades ago, along with increasing adoption (arguably over-adoption) of the word ‘sustainable’ to describe development that was deemed to be appropriate in the face of rapidly growing concerns about the effects of climate change, and of increasing environmental challenges. Since the mid-1960s the rapid expansion of tourism, particularly international mass tourism, had resulted in increasing calls for restraint, and increasing concerns about its potentially destructive environmental and socio-cultural effects. There have been a number of definitions of ‘sustainable tourism’ over the ensuing decades, many of which have been criticised for proving difficult both to put into practice, and to evaluate. But specifically in the context of our own region’s challenges, the ways in which UNESCO has talked about sustainable tourism are some of the most interesting and relevant, with its strong emphasis on the community taking both control and responsibility.

A UNESCO report on ‘Criteria for Sustainable Tourism’ (focused on Central & Eastern Europe) in  2009 (http://www.oete.de/tourism4nature/results/backdocs/ETE_2009_Criteria_Sustainable_Tourism.pdf ) identified a number of clusters of criteria critical to the concept of sustainable tourism. Two of them are especially relevant to us, as we consider all of the ways in which a project like the development of a St Kilda Centre might revitalise the community while protecting the very heritage that it seeks to draw attention to:

(1) Community wellbeing (Sustainable tourism development supports and ensures the economic, social and cultural well being of the communities in which tourism takes place. The criteria belonging to this cluster are ranging from the generation of income over the enhancement of local traditions up to the strengthening of participatory processes.)

(2) Protection of the natural and cultural environment (Sustainable tourism allows the use of natural and cultural resources for gaining economic profit while at the same time guaranteeing that these resources are not deteriorated or destroyed. Additionally, tourism is expected to be a driving force with regard to the establishment or the enhancement of nature protection and the maintenance of cultural values.)

Thinking about these issues, about the needs of a community, about the development of what will inevitably – no matter how it is pitched – become a tourist attraction, and reflecting on what makes good tourism and bad tourism has certainly changed the way we look at what a remote place like this has to offer – as well as influencing the way we view some of the people who pass through this place. Because you don’t teach tourists respect for a place and a way of life by wishing them gone. You don’t change the world by hogging a little piece of it all to yourself. Rather, you show people, gently and positively, a different way of being in the world. You present them with a way of life that is STILL unique and valuable – not just in the lessons of its apparently lost past, as typified by the abandoned village on St Kilda, but its living present and its hopeful future here in the very similar natural environment of Uig. You offer them a taste of it. The challenge is to achieve that by building a Centre that not only celebrates the ‘cultural landscape’ of St Kilda – that ‘long and intimate relationship between peoples and their natural environment’ (UNESCO) – but that also celebrates the present-day intimate relationship between the people of Uig and their natural environment, and particularly the island crofting way of life. Perhaps then we can enhance that still-strong sense of belonging in the community and its children. Perhaps then we can show others who visit that in this apparently bleak and empty land there is a spirit and a culture that is alive and adaptable – and that is immensely valuable to a crisis-laden world that seems so often to have lost its heart.

There’s no question about the nature and size of the challenges that lie before us at this early stage of the project, as we consider the most appropriate way to build and manage a St Kilda Centre. And yet, complex as this project is, as filled with contradictions, paradoxes and conundrums as the concept of ‘sustainable tourism’ may be, ultimately what we are looking for here is a way to keep a community alive and hefted to the land on which it belongs. As our good friend Alastair McIntosh says in his excellent book Soil and Soul:

‘… If humankind is to have any hope of changing the world, we must constantly work to strengthen community. We need first, to make community with the soil, to learn how to revere the Earth. In practical terms, that means ecological restoration … Second, we need to make community of human society … In practical terms, that means developing an inclusive sense of belonging, identity and values.’

These are challenges that can’t be solved by a single project – but it is a good place, perhaps, to dig in and make a start.

If you’re interested in the development of Ionad Hiort, the St Kilda Centre, please have a look at their website here: http://www.ionadhiort.org/

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2 thoughts on “Revitalising remote communities: the idea of ‘sustainable tourism’

  1. paul

    Hi Barry. Yes, it really is isn’t it? And I think it is important to remember that many of the issues that Sharon talks about apply also in other situations, and are not just applicable in “remote communities”. We have many debates about tourism, gentrification and sustainability here in Berlin – a city of nearly four million – and the impact of tourism on local communities and neighbourhoods within the city.

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