Tourism and Small Islands Developing States (SIDS)

Islands are a top destination for millions of tourists each year. Their special geographical situation and their natural and cultural heritage richness make them unique for visitors, but at the same time, confront them with a number of challenges and vulnerabilities.

Particularly Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) vary greatly in their economic and social performance and their level of international visitor arrivals but many demonstrate a high level of dependence on tourism in terms of exports and contribution to GDP. They present three key characteristics: small size, with implications for pressure on resources and limited economic diversity; remoteness and isolation, leading to challenges for trading but also to a unique biodiversity and cultural richness; and a maritime environment, leading to strong tourism assets but vulnerability to climate change.

There are four key distinctive challenges for islands: the crucial role of tourism in the sustainable development of islands, following the approach of the Rio+20 Conference which paid specific attention to tourism and its contribution to sustainable development; climate change, which is a great threat to many islands and requires a response from the tourism sector; air connectivity, requiring a strong link between tourism and air transport policies; and market positioning, including tourism products diversification and establishment of niche markets that would contribute to competitiveness and decrease vulnerability.

Information on the importance of tourism in SIDS and on the wide range of issues affecting its contribution to their sustainable development was consolidated by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in the publication Challenges and Opportunities for Tourism in Small Island Developing States. Launched on the occasion of the RIO+20 Conference, this publication presents an overview of the status of tourism in SIDS, while providing evidence of the key importance tourism has for the sustainable development of many islands and for the achievement of the MDGs. It also provides policy orientations, guidelines and other tools to the various tourism stakeholders in SIDS on how to address the challenges SIDS face and how to develop and manage tourism in a sustainable manner for the benefit of local communities and for maximizing visitors’ experience.

Meetings and Conferences

UNWTO actively participated in the United Nations Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of SIDS (Barbados, 25 April to 6 May 1994) and successfully encouraged delegates to focus on tourism in the Barbados Programme of Action (BPOA).

In 1998 the International Conference on Sustainable Tourism in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and other Islands was convened jointly by UNWTO with UNEP in Lanzarote, Spain (Final Report - PDF). Based on its resolutions, regional meetings were organized in collaboration with UNEP such as Sustainable Tourism and Competitiveness in the Islands of the Mediterranean, Island of Capri, Italy, 17-20 May 2000 (Final Report - PDF) and the International Conference on Sustainable Tourism in the Islands of the Asia-Pacific Region, held in Sanya, Island Of Hainan, China, 6-8 December 2000.

Various regional workshops on sustainability indicators of tourism development were based on demonstration study sites at coastal and island destinations selected by host countries, providing valuable experiences for sustainable coastal and island tourism development.

In 2005 UNWTO organized a Tourism Side Event in conjunction with the International Meeting to Review the Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, held in Port-Louis, Mauritius, from 10 to 14 January 2005 and provided inputs to the Mauritius Strategy, which elaborates on a wide variety of actions under 20 broad headings, most of them with implications for the tourism sector, ranging from climate change and natural and environmental disasters to resource management (coastal, marine, land, energy, tourism and biodiversity), transport and communication, graduation from least developed country status, sustainable capacity development and sustainable production and consumption.

The United Nations Conference on Small Islands Developing States

As the UN specialized agency for Tourism, UNWTO played a significant role at the United Nations Conference on Small Islands Developing States, held in Apia, Samoa, from 1 to 4 September 2014.

In view of this Conference, UNWTO co-organized two Conferences on Sustainable Development of Tourism in Islands in September 2013 and February 2014 – respectively in Reunion Island and Nassau - to provide guidance to National Tourism Authorities and the international community. On the occasion of these Conferences two Declarations have been adopted – the Réunion Island Declaration on Sustainable Tourism in Islands and the Nassau Declaration on Tourism as a Key Sector for Development in Island States.

In Samoa, the UNWTO delegation, which included Dr. Michael Frenzel, Chairman, World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), participated in key events, meetings and activities at the margins of the UN Conference on SIDS. UNWTO Secretary-General, Mr. Taleb Rifai, moderated the High-level side event of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination “The UN system partnering for the people of SIDS, held on 1 September. Sustainable economic development, climate change, disaster risk management and social development were the main thematic clusters discussed by the Executive Heads of the United Nations Agencies, Funds and Programmes. To watch the video click here.

UNWTO Secretary-General Mr. Taleb Rifai moderating the High-level side event of the UNCEB “The UN system partnering for the people of SIDS”

The UNWTO delegation actively participated in the two-day Private Sector Partnerships Forum, which greatly facilitated interaction, knowledge sharing and best practices, and in the multi-stakeholder partnership dialogues, which focused on the sustainable development of SIDS through genuine and durable partnerships, which was the overarching theme of the conference.

On the occasion of the Renewable Energy Forum, co-organized by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and New Zealand, a Joint Statement on Renewable Energy and Tourism was signed by Mr. Adnan Z. Amin, IRENA Director-General, and Mr. Taleb Rifai, UNWTO Secretary-General (see the photo on the left). The aim is to build a more sustainable, competitive and resilient tourism sector worldwide particularly in islands, including by encouraging investments in cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions. 

On 3 September, the Prime Minister of Samoa, Hon. Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, received the UNWTO/WTTC Open Letter on Travel and Tourism. Meeting UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai, and WTTC Chairman, Dr. Michael Frenzel, Tuilaepa said: “Sustainable tourism is an area that our government has placed much importance, as it holds key potential for future economic growth and social development. Great benefits from tourism are envisaged and have already been realized accounting for 20% of national GDP per annum. Sustainable Tourism supports employment, provides foreign exchange and builds the economy and it is still expanding the capacities of Samoa." He added: “We envisage a growing tourism sector that will lead in green growth development that engages our visitors and people to a Samoa that is recognized as a leading Pacific nation for Sustainable Tourism.” 

From left to right: Dr. Michael Frenzel, Hon. Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi and Mr. Taleb Rifai

Download the UNWTO Leaflet "Tourism in SIDS/Building a more sustainable future for the people of Islands"

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