Covid-19: A Shock for Human Beings, But A Grace Period For Small Island Development States’ Tourism Innovations

The term “Small Island Development States” or SIDS refers to those islands operated on own autonomous institutions in the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans (UNESCO). This group is reputable for beautiful sceneries, islands lure in mainlanders’ eye and dedication to standing up on the global climate change alerts by determinedly aligning their future towards sustainable development approaches (UNEP et al., 2012). Many research and academic works have been done to discover proper sustainable development models to fit these sovereignties in the new century given the global climate-change scenarios. However, these geographies with wicked challenges, for instance, inefficient governance systems, insufficient human and financial capital and weather vulnerabilities, have delayed their in-time movements towards the scheduled sustainability’s established goals (Singh, Asha, 2014, p.617). In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the planet and exacerbated these fragile economies, particularly the dramatic fall of their tourism sector, which significantly contributed 30% on average to these islands’ GDP, according to WTTC data (Coke-Hamilton, 2020, para. 8). This situation keeps evolving until now and is unpredictable, so SIDS needs to initiate further innovative adaptations to ensure tourism could be recovered and robustly move forwards in the new-normal era. This writing discusses how sustainable tourism’s innovations derived from the umbrella notion of “Small is Beautiful”, introduced by the famous German-born economist E. F. Schumacher in 1973, could be the resilient path towards sustainability for SIDS during Covid-19 and in the future. The paper is divided into four parts: SIDS vulnerable traits, Small is Beautiful Concept, Innovative Changes, and Conclusion.

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SIDS Vulnerable Traits

Whenever we talk about the islands, there are particular characteristics that island studies thoroughly discussed. First of all, small islands’ unique feature refers to the oceanic geography suffering uncertain weather and natural disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes, tsunami, and so on (Graci & Maher, 2018, p.249). Although the islanders could have their own ways of dealing with the weather and catastrophes in past centuries, the realistic adaptation is measured at a low level for future climate and weather changes due to human activities, for example, land erosion caused by massive constructions, bleeding coral reefs by acidic waste and water disposals, and deforestation by logging and plantation expansion (Klint et al., 2012). These new-born catastrophes are something islanders have never encountered before because it is a multi-scale problem requiring a re-organization in a bigger system of Capitalism (Hall, 2015). In the book This Change Everything, Naomi Klein, a famous Canadian social activist, once depicted that the modern capitalism norms of North-South disparities just worsened the environmental degradation and climate change’s programs on these islands (Klein, 2014).

We are build to survive… So are our oceans. So is the atmosphere. But surviving is not the same as thriving, not the same as living as well

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, 2014

Secondly, socio-economic weakness is a significant stress. Islands are lack of diversified trades and manufacturing chains to gain sufficient economic capital. They are deemed to have almost no opportunity to build economies of scale (UNEP et al., 2012, p.6). Generally, the islands have specialized niche products, such as cash crops (e.g., banana, sugar, copra and tobacco) or minerals ( phosphate, nickel, and bauxite), and export these products to specific mainland such as Canada, USA, and other South Americas countries (Baldacchino & Kelman, 2014, p.11). Given this reactive role, they are not in the power position for pricing control in global marketplace and are at risk when the demand changes, which it does quickly nowadays by technology or by global disasters as this pandemic. A weak economy subsequently leads to poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, health conditions and diseases, and the loss of traditional livelihoods. Last but not least to mention, island resources are limited. The islands are unintentionally in a dilemma between their assigned path on preserving the natural resources, for instance, the case of Papua New Guinea with much effort on the long-term sustainable perpetuation, but almost neglect the present basic needs (food, water, education and hygiene) which leave the island be classified as “least developed country” (Baldacchino & Kelman, 2014, p.6), or aggressively following a constant stock approach (Kerr, 2014, p.506), as Vanuatu’s overexploitation of reserved phosphates, to exchange those treasures for capitals which is said to be reinvested in social developing sectors such as education, infrastructures, or medical facilities. Even though this approach also deems as an optimization model of sustainability development, consequences are incalculable if the island jurisdictions neglect scientific methods. Also,  the issue of politically unequal and untransparent distribution of these transactions per capita occurs.

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These vulnerable traits are “coupling” or even “telecoupling” (Godar and Gardner 149-175), and lead to domino effects that could push any small jurisdiction like an island in jeopardy, then spreading out to its regional archipelagos and the whole planet, for instance, in the case of Jamaica, massive constructions of roads and coastal resorts completely degraded the whole ecosystem. Sedimentation caused by land erosion flow down the coastal marine and destroy the coral reef system and fishing areas. These seriously impacted the island’s traditional livelihood, such as agriculture and fishery, which then led to food production shortage and currency deficit from main exporting markets in the regions (Jamaica: Deforestation linked to mining, agriculture and tourism, 2001). The Covid-19 Pandemic even unpacked these vulnerable traits with more visible consequences at the beginning of 2020. We are now looking at Tourism’s impact by the Covid-19 pandemic in the next section.

Covid-19 Enhancing the Toughness on SIDS’s Tourism

Tourism is a vital sector of the island states’ economies. For more than half of the SIDS, it is their largest source of foreign exchange. The social, economic and environmental well-being of many SIDS is tied to this sector. Tourism receipts represent more than 30% of their total exports; in comparison, the average for the world’s just over 5% (UNEP et al., 2012, p.11). According to a report from UNCTAD, written by Pamela Coke-Hamilton, Director, Division on International Trade and Commodities, when the pandemic hit at the end of 2019, most SIDS immediately witnessed the tragic decline in this sector (see Figure 1). On average, the tourism sector accounts for almost 30% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the SIDS, according to WTTC data (Coke-Hamilton, 2020, para. 8). This share is over 50% for the Maldives, Seychelles, St. Kitts and Nevis and Grenada (para. 9). Overall, travel and tourism in the SIDS generate approximately $30 billion per year. A decline in tourism receipts by 25% will result in a $7.4 billion or 7.3% fall in GDP. The drop could be significantly greater in some of the SIDS, reaching 16% in the Maldives and Seychelles (para. 10). It is expected that for many SIDS, the COVID-19 pandemic will directly result in record amounts of revenue losses without the alternative sources of foreign exchange revenues necessary to service external debt and pay for imports (para. 11). The external debt of the SIDS as a group accounts for 72.4% of their GDP on average, reaching up to 200% in Seychelles and the Bahamas (para. 14). Until now, severe lock-down restrictions, curfews, and border-closure are implemented in every country, and the trend goes on. Human beings are virtually restricted to most business-as-usual activities, especially those are related to “distant mobility” such as tourism. Subsequently, the tourism industry suffered a dramatic drop ever since there is literally no more distant mobility allowed by any mean, which serves as the industry’s core enabling condition. This situation left their current hefty debts unpaid, as figure 1 illustrated (Seychelles, Bahamas, and Jamaica):

Figure 1.

Tourism, Debt and Foreign Currency Reserve Indicators

Note: UNCTAD based on data from UNCTADStat, WTTC, World Bank, IMF and national statistics. Aggregate figures are GDP weighted averages. SIDS are defined according to the UNCTAD classification. Coke-Hamilton, P. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 on tourism in small island developing states. UNCTAD.

Looking Back to “Small Is Beautiful” Concept

Covid-19 has been a big shock, both mentally and economically, for human beings on the planet since 2020. Unfortunately, this situation unpleasantly keeps going on in every aspect of our lives this year, and maybe longer. The light at the end of the tunnel was mentioned several times by the nations’ leaders when the vaccines came out earlier this year. With help from the boastful hands of media, the impatient pressure to get back to normal was more prominent than ever, even though this resolution is not solely how this pandemic will end completely. The pandemic problem’s complexity is indeed related to our proud neoliberalism’s economic model, so it has something to do with our excessive consumerism, inequality, and idiotic dream of infinite growth, as critiqued by Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything (Klein, 2014). Earlier than Klein, in the book Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Matter (Schumacher,1973), Schumacher expressed his thought on materialism as the dominant growth mentality in his time; everything must be at big scale to solve the production’s problems:

I was brought up on the theory that in order to be prosperous, a country had to be big – the bigger, the better.

Schumacher, 1973, p.59

However, this belief was one of the most fatal errors of our ages (p.12), the book’s author argued. Schumacher also critiqued human beings could successfully solve the above problems by endlessly fostering economic growth and surplus in society capital, but with a cost that they did not envision: dehumanization in all processes, inequality led to violence, unsustainability, and socioecological issues. These impacts are seen as the consequences of “that illusion of unlimited power” (p.13):

A businessman would not consider a firm to have solved its problem of production and to have achieved viability if he saw that it was rapidly consuming its capital. How, then, could we overlook this vital fact when it comes to that very big firm, the economy of Spaceship Earth and, in particular, the economies of its rich passengers.

Schumacher, 1973, p.13

The concept of global resources and capital loss from Schumacher was reinforced again by a well-known  British Green Politician Economist, Molly Scott Cato (Cato,2012, p.3). Cato strongly expressed her thought on the strong-rooted affection of capitalism and fundamental free-market principles that ruin the modern world’s social and environmental equilibrium. The Green economics concepts are meant to build a healthy relationship with nature, balancing the growth, and well choose the scale to fit it (p.17). The idea “Small is Beautiful” from Schumacher and Cato’s reinforcement clearly explained the emergence of Green economics thinking as the core engagement for three pillars indicators of sustainability: economy, society and environment, which is apt with the current SIDS circumstances. The green economic notions ring the bell for a desperate need of innovative, sustainable and unique tourism products to match with “new-normal”  global citizens’ movements. Next, we will discuss tourism innovations inspired by green economic principles which SIDSs could apply to re-organize the operational system on their own terms.

Innovative Changes for SIDS Tourism’s Recovery

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As presented in the second section, the most vulnerable pandemic restriction is mobility, and its ‘closure is absolutely the cruelest execution on global tourism. The situation is worse for small islands where they are all dependent on air-carriers or ferries as entry means. Although vaccines are available recently, to have sufficient doses for everybody on the planet is another long-phrase. The inequality conditions will let the rich countries possess most of those doses before the rest—the North first, then the South (Belluz, 2021). The hopeful process could take up to 2024 to accompany the majority of world’s population, so the SIDS are required to make new revolutions, or it will be too little too late when the time comes. As being said, it is not likely we can go back to the business-as-usual state any time soon. Therefore, a new-normal approaching way of tourism planning could inherit the advantage of this grace period of green sustainable transition for the time being. This is a challenging time, yet full of opportunities; imagine it as a reset button for all misleading paths we have taken in the past for our growth.

In the vision of travel and tourism after Covid-19, Alan Lew (Lew et al., 2020, p.456)  introduced the adaptative cycle with the first phase of innovation and creativity as a resilient base ground for tourism in the pandemic. Lew asserted that human beings, as social animals, will be seeking new pathways to knowledge, understanding and empathy across the globe (p.456). Every new creative idea, from planning, marketing, construction planning, positioning the products (both prices and types), could take place during this time. As this is a grace period, it is totally reasonable to be innovative, open to ideas and be willing to make mistakes (p.456). Most importantly, Lew (Lew et al., 2020) also acknowledged that the future we envisioned for tourism needs to be balanced with neoliberal economics somehow because it also has potential co-evolution values, such as the support of financial funds and technology know-how (p.456). Any immediate change without a scientific and precautionary approach would incur unwanted costs that could not be reversed.

Change in Scale: Smaller but Efficient

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Once again, Alan Lew (Lew et al., 2020) pointed out an optimistic view of transportation recovery even more post-COVID-19 with domestic restriction lifted and international safety protocols applied, such as international medical certification for tourists (Lew et al., 2020). Vietnam is one example that has been doing well since Covid evolved and is currently on its way to recovery. Although the country is still sticking with the closure of international borders, there was a vast regaining of three-fold in domestic travel after lifting the domestic travel restrictions, due to two reasons: the desperation of people after long lock-down periods and most importantly, the motivation to support domestic tourism businesses. According to Mr Nguyễn Trùng Khánh, general director of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, the country is currently discussing with Singapore and other well-done countries to generate a travelling bubble to foster mobility in the region with safety protocol in place, while fostering new type of products such as small-group, high-end luxury resorts, eco-tourism, heal tourism and adventure products to grasp with market trend (Vietnam News, 2020). Comparably, domestic or regional travel, such as Atlantic Bubble, on a smaller scale could be a quick re-connection for the islands in the meantime. Besides, it is also worth looking at the environments and social capacity in connecting with sustainable tourism when international travel is permitted again. Bigger is not necessarily better during this time. Enormous cruise ships or massive tours used to be a beloved cash-cow tool for SIDS but at what cost? Their impacts on the local community’s way of life and environmental degradation are irreversible. Ocean states welcoming cruise ships, such as Vanuatu, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, would no longer receive such big groups, at least for this year. Hence a vision on a smaller but efficient scale in the operational capacity, suitable with the local community’s livelihood and cultures, and environmental perpetuation, is adequate. With self-isolation and quarantine requirements, is it more likely people look for personal exploration or family-only-products, with transportation mean of private cars, jets or yachts, with unique experience rather than massive tourism before? 

Change in Type: Remote Workers – Digital Nomads

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During the pandemic, all business-as-usual are forced to close, and employees are getting used to the phenomenon of “working from home” or “working remotely”. This concept is not new at all, but it is only getting ubiquitous recently since more and more corporations extend this policy during Corvid’s lockdown (Hermann,2020, p.329). Both sides acknowledged the benefits of reducing living and operational costs while enhancing well-being and productivity (p.330). A group of people who regularly works remotely, literally anywhere in the world with internet connectivity,  are called  “Digital Nomads” (Hermann,2020, p.329). These groups are evolving as a new type of travellers that could generate values to destinations if the arrangements are well-organized, according to Rosana, a five-year experienced digital nomad in Lisbon, asserted in the conference “Adapting Tourist Destinations for Remote Workers and Digital Nomads in 2021” held by Island Innovation (Ellsmore, Feb 9, 2021). James Ellsmore, Founder of Island Innovation Organization, also revealed their benefits to the local communities (Ellsmore, Feb 9, 2021. For instance, they are high-paying groups to living costs such as long-term upscale accommodations, broadband and high-end technologies, high spending on local businesses such as F&B or crafts. This brings higher and more consistent incomes for the destinations that they are based. Additionally, the group could create jobs by hiring locals for errands or seasonal business offices. Simultaneously, they become the connection’s bridge for personal and business networks between the destinations’ people and other countries or international agencies. Acknowledging the emergence of this valuable group, many nations have initiated programs specialized to accommodate them well.

Madeira Islands, an autonomous region of Portugal, started a Nomad Village project named Ponta Do Sol, “where the sun shines for more hours”,  from February 1st until June 30th, 2021. The host village is organized with a sense of community with all necessary facilities such as working space with technology equipment and high-speed internet connectivity, restaurants, pubs, coffee shops, mostly sunshine and ocean bay view, and more to satisfy the needs for remote workers while allowing communal interactions with local cultures (Digital Nomads Madeira Islands, 2021). Curaçao recently introduced their immigration program in February  2021 onwards, called @Home in Curaçao– convenient working and living, for digital nomads to settle short term on the islands during the pandemic this year:

A moment of relaxation and peace of mind is just a breath away. All you have to do is look up from your laptop. A feeling that is recognized by the many visitors that have been to Curaçao and have come back for more.

Curaçao, 2021

Several other countries, including Bermuda and Barbados, also took the chance to issue a new type of visa for these remote-workers to come in and enjoy working at the “home away from home” for a defined period (Hermann,2020, p.330). By chance or as-it-is, working-remotely has evolved as a new philosophy for global workers with their intrinsic values mentioning in this section. In this race, SIDS has such competitive advantages to utilize this new wave of global citizens for sustainable tourism in the meantime and the future. Why not?

Change to Green: Ecotourism functioning as a self-reliant economy

We commonly mentioned one weakness of SIDS is the lack of a self-reliant economy for own basic needs of food, water supply and waste management. With that in mind, the change of tourists’ behaviors post-pandemic in demanding more personal experience in local destinations also contributes to shaping the new ecotourism products, supporting two purposes simultaneously: functioning as a self-sufficient economic and ecological system for islanders while offering valuable experiences for tourists. Islanders who complained about massive tourist’s invasion of the lands now can make use of this time to making their own sustainable supplying system.

In the documentary Islands of Faith byChairun Nissa, released in 2019 and funded by the European Union in collaboration with the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Bumit Langit and Kebun Kumara are two sustainable ecotourism models that promote harmony living with nature (Chairun Nissa, 2019). Bumi Langit is the name of a family-run eco-farm in Imogiri old town of Yogyakarta, in south-central Java Island. They created a closed recycling system for their house and farms functioning similar to the natural ecosystem in their living area. It could recycle water and support the growth of organic products in the garden. “No water is wasted”, said Iskandar, the family head. The family regularly runs  “permaculture workshops” to teach other neighbors and farmers in the province about their sustainable agriculture model. The word “permaculture” itself is Islamic in context: “Perma” is from permanent, and “culture” is life. The workshop also emphasizes the meaning of the mutual relationship between man and nature to the participants.

Bumi Langit . Source :

The last example referred to a couple’s passion for finding the meaning of their roles in urban society. Soraya Cassandra, the wife, had a passion for education, and her husband, Dhira, loved nature. Thus, they combined the two ideas to build a learning garden named Kebun Kumara in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital. The garden land was a former illegal waste disposal place, and the couple transformed it into a green garden. It produces organic vegetables and becomes the learning laboratory for nature lovers to practice growing green plants in the middle of the gigantic Jakarta metropolitan on the populous Java island of eleven million people. The couple believed “if many city people are disconnected from nature, the solution should be in the city itself” (Chairun Nissa, 2019). Kebun Kumara, the city garden model, inspires sustainable habits to reduce carbon emission by building a close connection between urban citizens and nature. As a promising model, Kebun Kumara is among many more projects that are continuously evolving on our planet nowadays with the only mission to encourage people to live in harmony with nature, not above it. The two models show islanders’ resilience on their own survival needs and create a valuable experience for the tourists to enjoy, learn, and re-apply back home.

Kebun Kumara . Source :

What now ?

In human civilization’s history, diseased events happened several times. Some were even worse, such as Black Death in 14th Century, the Cholera in the 19th century, the Spanish Flu in Europe 1918, Malaria in the Americas, SARS 2003 in Asia, and Ebola in Africa 2014 (Pandemic – Wikipedia). However, this current pandemic is like no other before, and its impacts are extremely upsetting the global population’s way of life, shaped by the trap of “bigger is better” principle, thus this immediate pandemic stop-sign of excessive consumption and mobility is such a deep cut-throat to many of us. This situation is agonizing; nevertheless, SIDS now has sufficient time to look back at their malfunctioning system, re-organize and innovate new ways to adapt and keeps moving forwards. It is a grace period for these states to click the reset button and get right back on track towards a green economic strategy once stated from the Barbados Programme of Action and the Mauritius Strategy of Implementation in 2005. The green economy model has clearly outlined the way forward in pursuit of sustainable development for SIDS. The Rio+20 Conference provided an opportunity, in particular, for SIDS to take advantage of this development model against their commonly discussed characteristics and catastrophes (UNEP et al., 2012, p.3). The pathways are readily set,  though the group are obligatory to accelerate in implementing coherent strategies, consistent planning from the local governments, and pro-active in utilizing the support of technology transfer and funding from international agencies to pursue the innovative changes as a whole rather than divided individual actions on these island states. This grace period has granted SIDS the most incredible power ever to make their tourism great and green, again.

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