The Malta Independent 20 May 2024, Monday
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Eco-tourism in small islands

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 2 September 2021, 07:50 Last update: about 4 years ago

Covid-19 is having continuous considerable impact on tourism around the world. When verifying such impact and possible remedies, one must contextualise evidence and consult with key stakeholders in the field, such as scholars, business operators, and civil society.

Small island economies such as ours, which are considerably dependent on tourism, face particular challenges. Although tourism has a positive impact on the economy - such as that of employment opportunities - it may also have negative impacts, such as environmental ones. Apart from that, tourist arrivals may be seasonal, creating imbalances during the year where, for example, there may be too many tourists in summer and too few tourists in winter. Hence, for example, in summer one may experience challenges related to factors such as congestion and waste management, whilst in winter there may be low return on investment for businesses dependent on tourism, thus negatively affecting employment accordingly.


If we look at small Mediterranean islands such as Malta, we need to factor in that the most popular type of tourism is that of the sun, sand, and sea type.  Hence it is no surprise that the summer period is the most popular one for incoming tourists.

In this regard, it may be useful to look toward other forms of tourism to help ensure more sustainable practices, both for local communities as well as for economic operators and workers. Readers of this newspaper would be familiar with the concept of ecotourism, often referred to by various scholars, operators, politicians, and NGOs.

Ecotourism involves various practices which can be divided into subcategories, such as eco-tours, birdwatching, flower gazing, trekking, mountain biking and marine eco-tourism, which collectively can help tackle seasonality and the negative impacts of mass tourism. The Mediterranean weather is also opportune to encourage ecotourism in non-summer months.

Market research in the field - such as that conducted by the Global Environment Facility - suggests that post-Covid-19, people will seek out natural spaces and quality experiences, rendering this an opportune moment to invest in ecotourism. Tourism promoters such as TripAdvisor have introduced rankings for the best parks in Europe, which shows a new-found proclivity towards such activities. Here one may wonder whether there will ever be such a thing as post-Covid society and that is all the more reason to encourage serious thought of alternatives to mass tourism.  

A few days ago I co-authored a peer-reviewed academic article, with Karl Agius, entitled Mitigating seasonality patterns in an archipelago: the role of ecotourism. The article was published in the scholarly journal Maritime Studies. It is based on fieldwork and interviews conducted by Agius in the Aegadian Archipelago, off the west coast of Sicily.

The three small islands in question, Favignana, Levanzo and Marettimo have respective permanent populations of 4,500, 220, and 820 within respective land areas of 19.8, 5.8, and 12.4 km2.  In view of its natural features, the archipelago earned designations such as an extensive marine protected area (MPA) that is one of the largest in European seas.  

The islands are connected to each other and to the mainland in Trapani through a hydrofoil and ro-ro ferry service. Whereas multiple runs of hydrofoil are available all year round, the service is more frequent in the summer period, and the closest airport is that of Trapani. Tourist arrivals have increased constantly in the past decade and exceeded 800,000 arrivals (pre-Covid). Favignana welcomes the highest number of tourists with around 60,000 visitors in August, in what is clearly a seasonal tourism cycle.

Stakeholders interviewed for this research study showed a clear preference for ecotourism practices with the aim of creating a more sustainable and evenly-spread form of tourism during the year. Some ecotours conducted off-season provided encouraging signs in this regard.

Stakeholders consider this form of tourism as an opportunity to address challenges such as off-season unemployment, and on-season higher cost of living and precarious work.

At the same time, this form of tourism requires policy-support such as better connectivity, specialised marketing, planning, and management. In turn, revenue can be directed towards the management of parks and sustainable income for local communities.

This study underlines practical proposals which can have beneficial economic, social, and environmental impacts. It also shows that other small Mediterranean islands can give more importance to such policy practices. With our own Malta being a small island, which happens to be an EU member state, we have much to gain by giving more thought to ecotourism. Of necessity, this also includes a more deliberative type of policy making, involving the various stakeholders in the field.

Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta



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