Monday, March 26, 2012

Preservation or promotion of Saltspring - thoughts on a recent study

In keeping with my theme of late, I am going to share some of my observations on a recent article in the Canadian Geographer and pose some questions that we may want to consider for rural areas with respect to tourism development.
I just finished reading Claire Halpern and Clare Mitchell's article "Can a preservationist ideology halt the process of creative destruction? Evidence from Saltspring Island, BC" which was published in the Canadian Geographer (2011). I found this to be an informative, detailed article on the evolution of the island, which is also an area I am very familiar with (my cousins started Garry Oak Vineyards). The authors describe, using historical and current literature and some supporting interviews, how the island has been transforming as a heritage-scape and pondering its future given some externalities such as provincial tourism plans. Of particular interest, the authors explored to what extent a preservationist ideology exists on the island and its role in the creation and maintenance of the heritage scape.
I am planning to take a group of graduate students on a study tour of the Southern Gulf Islands in October with Dr. Patrick Maher from UNBC where we will focus on developing a series of papers on amenity based rural development. Using this more holistic umbrella, we aim to explore how the island region is balancing the promotion and protection of natural and cultural amenities. We intend to highlight the presence of innovative strategies being used to manage these mandates. I will have the students read this aforementioned article as one of our preparatory pieces as it is one of the few out there that focus on the role of heritage and culture in rural development and preservation.

While I enjoyed the article and encourage its read, I have to, by nature of my role as a researcher - wade in with a few reservations on the methods and findings.

First, the use of a linear model that starts with a new concept and finishes with destruction is problematic for me (see last post for my reservations of these lifecycle model approaches and inevitable decline). In reality, Saltspring and many other rural communities go through a more complex evolutionary cycle in response to the external forces that are present in the day as well as the ideological make up of their "current residents". I say current here because one of the assumptions we make as researchers is that "residents" are a homogeneous group. Research studies have highlighted that residents are in fact very diverse and that while variable such as length of residence, attitudes towards preservation, link to tourism etc have all been used to explore differences - the results are often contradictory in different case study regions. Saltspring Island, like other high amenity rural regions, is exposed to visitors on an ongoing basis, many of whom find the area so attractive that they seek to move there. That these can be called negative impacts of tourism is problematic - in fact, people moving to a new location is a phenomena called amenity migration - not tourism. We need to begin to separate these variables out more clearly in future studies.
Finally, the researchers make some assumptions that the old tourism plan (vs. the more recent tourism strategy - 2011) was about increasing numbers of visitors (as opposed to higher spending). While I agree with the authors findings and have found consistent responses in other rural BC contexts that the goal of doubling was a goal coming from Victoria, not the communities, the goal was not about doubling numbers of tourists (same number spending more arrives at the same outcome). And, to assume that a provincial strategy is likely to influence the destruction of an island's heritage-scape was to me, a bit of a stretch as a potential consequence. Maybe provincial policy documents have a further reaching effect in Ontario, but in BC - I have yet to see this level of impact created. That is not intended as a dig to my colleagues in the Ministry who do important and valuable work, it is just that the realities of the take up of any Ministry on the ground floor of any province is limited in its impact due to the dynamic and grassroots nature of development practice.
For those grad students out there - we have lots of work to do. Here are a few questions I'd pose for further investigation. What does the evolution of amenity based rural development where heritage-scapes exist look like in different case study regions? Which stakeholders are involved in that evolution and what role do they play? What external forces, over time, are responded to at the community level, by whom and with what effect? To what extent do preservationist ideologies maintain over time and through successive additions of new amenity migrants? Do different types of residents preserve or promote natural and cultural amenities over time and to what effect?

Halpern, C., and C.J.A. Mitchell. (2011). Can a preservationist ideology halt the process of creative descruction? Evidence from Salt Spring Island, BC. The Canadian Geographer. 55(2): 208-225.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Debunking old myths and challenging old models

I am often seen as an agitator or contrarian I think, both descriptors that I am happy with. Part of the fun with science is that we have to be open to the notion that what we know today may be total nonsense tomorrow. Today I was thinking of this a bit with some fun jest with colleagues here on one model that I often find limiting in my work (there are others). While all of these models served an important role in advancing our thinking at the time, many are now limiting us when they are applied to policies and management decisions. As researchers find out new information and share it with one another, we need to be open to explore other explanations for the things we see happening around us.

One of my favorite examples - the most often cited model for destination development is Butler's lifecycle model. In essence, Butler proposed that destinations move from a state of exploration to eventual consolidation - and at this point, depending on the actions taken by stakeholders - they could either stagnate and decline or rejuvenate. This model has been widely adopted in academia and is taught to most students in tourism management programs as a way of emphasizing the importance of management decisions.

An example of a well done investigation to expand this model is by Noreen Maree Breakey's Phd from the University of Queensland . Noreen delves into and compiles a number of observations on theories used to explore destination development. Poking holes in all of them, she filtered out the useful elements of them and proposed a new "Multi-Trajectory Model of Tourism Destination Change. Her new model "proposes that the growth pattern of a destination variable may at times be in a state of complete ‘equilibrium’, undergoing gradual positive or negative ‘evolutionary’ change, or within a ‘chaos’ induced ‘punctuation’ causing an immediate, and substantial increase or decrease in growth." She tested her model in different destinations along the Sunshine coast of Australia and found that there is no single pattern to destination development. This work, if picked up and used more broadly (along with other contraries work) has the potential to move us forward and ensure that our management practices are in alignment with research evidence gathered from the field.

My issue with this model and many others (such as the origin, transit and destination description of the tourism system) is the extent that they simplify what is in reality, a much more complex system. I still hear colleagues using Butler's model as the "state of the world" about tourism and have had senior level students question why they would ever want to be part of an industry that will eventually destroy itself!

In rural areas, these models can be limited in their application. Most of the research that has been used to develop macro models have been on well known, major destination or resort areas. Can we assume that a community of 500 in rural BC at the beginning of transitioning to tourism is going to undergo the same process? And what about all of those communities that have been trying to develop tourism for 20 years and are still a long way from being at the development stage. Are we to assume that they all need to embrace for the certainty that the hordes will soon be upon them? And what of those destinations where the people involved in tourism (because there is a lot of burn out and attrition in tourism champions and entrepreneurs) change regularly. Do we not see alternate trajectories emerge from inputs other than the sheer number of visitors that arrive? Oh, there are so many questions.

What is promising is that new young researchers are emerging all the time with different ways of seeing the world, different hunches about what they see and different ways of measuring and explaining phenomena around us. Let's keep our exploration hats on shall we - so we stay involved and don't stagnate and decline in our collective work on sustainable tourism development!

What models do you want to poke holes in?