Megan Epler Wood on sustainable tourism
There were no great reveals on Friday during a presentation by Megan Epler Wood on the recent study “Block Island and the Invisible Burden of Tourism.” If anyone was expecting to be told something they didn’t already know, they might have been disappointed.
So, it’s important to bear in mind that this study was intended not to solve Block Island’s problems but to provide baseline data that can be used in the future for measurement purposes. As Epler Wood spoke to the Town Council and the Tourism Council on Friday, she emphasized that without baseline data for comparison purposes, “people will question the methodology” used in any analysis.
Epler Wood has been overseeing the study, conducted by Harvard University students in the T.H. Chan School of Public Health started in February, 2022.
The study came on the heels of the Tourism Council’s annual meeting last fall, where Epler Wood gave a well-received talk on the invisible burdens of tourism.
The students interviewed 24 stakeholders for the study, but unfortunately no one from Interstate Navigation. “It wasn’t for lack of trying,” said Tourism Director Jessica Willi, who said the company was on a list of potential interviewees, but did not respond to a request for an interview.
On Block Island, four areas “appear to be at a tipping point,” said Epler Wood. They are affordable housing, police, water, and municipal waste. “The key problem,” she said, was “no one knows how many people are coming.”
Three of the four areas of strain – housing, police, and water, are well known. Problems with municipal waste may be a different matter, but there, the problem is not so much with quantity but the quality. Specifically, tourists and commercial entities don’t tend to recycle nearly as much as residents.
Ultimately, that becomes a state problem, as long as the transfer station can maintain its schedule of transporting waste off the island and to the central landfill in Johnston.
“The great issue I have is not Block Island,” said Second Warden Sven Risom, “but at the state level.”
“We can recycle all we want, said Town Councilor Martha Ball. “If it’s not recycled elsewhere, we’re spitting in the wind.”
As far as the problem with constraints of production and storage of water, Ball felt this ignored a much larger problem. The Water Company largely serves the downtown and commercial areas, which includes most of the largest hotels, but the majority of users of water are on private wells.
“One thing that follows through all of this is...the extraordinary resources drawn by private rentals,” said Ball, who then went on to say that the number of people in the rental homes, the number of homes with swimming pools and irrigation systems were all unknown. “If you’re just basing [the report] on hotels, it’s not valid. You have to acknowledge, that’s the big unknown.”
The report, largely written by Nicole Wargo, reads: “Ideally, data would be presented per tourist because this clearly demonstrates the relationship between tourism growth and impacts. However, due to the unavailability of visitor numbers to Block Island this is not yet possible.”
The report, which has many pages of data exhibits, also states: “Where possible, data is reported monthly and for the past five years to demonstrate trends before and after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Besides the problem of not knowing the number of tourists visiting the island is the problem of assessing the costs attributed to them. The report has data on the various tourism-related tax revenues received by the town and the Tourism Council, but how that money is used to offset the costs of tourism is obscured in the accounting system. So there is no way to evaluate whether, for the town, tourism is a net drain on the budget or an enhancement.
The report recommends utilizing new coding within the town’s accounting program that might begin to track this information.
Town Council member Keith Stover asked if there were situations where people had “figured out interesting ways to monetize tourism without increasing the flow.”
Currently tourism-related revenues go into the town’s general fund, but in other areas of the world countries are implementing “incoming tourism taxes,” according to Epler Wood. Among them are Iceland and New Zealand. “It hasn’t impeded any tourism,” she said. Another example she gave was Belize, which implemented a fee for incoming cruise ships back in 2005. Those revenues, however go into a dedicated trust fund as opposed to into general funds.
Members of the Tourism Council took this opportunity to mention that the focus of their annual meeting in October would be the subject of tourism improvement districts, which would provide a source of revenues that would be dedicated for particular tourism-related expenses, or improvements.
Towards the beginning of her presentation Epler Wood said that during the interview process she had never seen so many “sincere people,” who were honest and did not hold back information. In the conclusion of the report the authors wrote: “It cannot be overstated that the community of Block Island is acutely aware of the challenges they face and are poised to work together to find solutions. The hard working and can-do attitude of island residents is laudatory. A solutions-oriented approach is a trademark of local residents, and their commitment to improvement is assiduous.”