Tourism has irrevocably altered tropical islands. It is impossible to keep an island completely untouched, but in some cases, the tourism industry has done irreparable harm. Tourism affects tropical islands in three ways, culturally, economically, and environmentally.
Tourism often cheapens local cultures and changes them into spectacles. One example is the traditional Hawaiian “hula” dance, which now is mostly as a way to entertain hotel guests. There are many other examples where longstanding traditions have been cheapened by tourism’s influence. The islands are not taking it idly though, using cultural centers and festivals to celebrate their traditions on their own terms. It is important to support these locally-driven outlets of tradition because they often directly support the island itself, instead of an outside company.
Speaking of supporting tourism companies, vacations on tropical islands rarely put much money into the pockets of the island natives. When companies build expensive hotels and resorts, most of the revenue generated from their operation goes into the company’s coffers. Tropical islanders make very little in comparison to how much money is being generated by tourism. Witness the shanty towns right outside resort towns and cities on islands like Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. If possible, supporting locally-run hotels and other tourist businesses is the best option. This puts money directly into the local economy and allows the islanders to support their own businesses instead of being part of an exploitative relationship.
Environmentally, tropical islands are increasingly at risk. 90% of the world’s coral reefs are located very close to the equator, around tropical islands. Pollution from continental waste, heavy boating, and over-fishing can cause irrevocable damage to the delicate ecosystems of the islands. Construction of tourist amenities can also create problems of space for natives to live on and as well as taking away from the natural beauty of the island itself. Tropical islands are also feeling the effects of global warming more strongly than other geographic locales. Since they are often only feet above sea level, any change in the levels of the oceans, even if minuscule, can be deadly. Tsunamis such as the 2004 Boxing Day disaster cost the world 7 billion in humanitarian aid and killed over 225,000 people. The majority of those people lived in island communities, where rising sea levels equal a rising danger. Given these numerous challenges facing the islands, being environmentally conscious while on the islands as well as at home is very important. Tour companies have latched onto the green aspect of environmentally-conscious travelers, and now offer treks that seek to leave very small ecological footprints. Using these companies helps support and protect the islands’ environments.
Given the triple-pronged threat that islands face because of tourism, being a smart traveler can help support some of the most pristine environments on Earth, as well as preserve ancient traditions that deserve to be saved. Putting your tourist dollar towards local businesses also helps stimulate the island economy, so vote with your dollars!