Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Journal Article Review of Ryan (2001), “Tourism in the South Pacific – A Case of Marginalities”


Lucas Watt, Roxane de Waegh, and Greg Watt

In the public imaginary, Oceania is a remote region of tropical paradise, perfect for a family holiday away from the troubles of everyday life. As much as Oceania’s geographic, political and economic remoteness defines its islands as alluring holiday destinations, Chris Ryan (2001) argues that it is this very remoteness that also defines the tourism sector in Oceania as a “case of marginalities”. He argues in his article; Tourism in the South Pacific – A Case of Marginalities, that Oceania’s multifaceted remoteness marginalises its peoples, communities, and nations involved in the tourism sector. In this journal article review, Lucas Watt, Roxane de Waegh, and Greg Watt critique Ryan (2001) in reference to the current context in Oceania.

Lucas Watt critiques the core/periphery paradigm Ryan uses . He argues that Ryan omits the potential of local relationships and structures outside of the core/periphery paradigm to both constrain and empower communities involved in tourism. Bringing Ryan’s article into current context, Roxane de Waegh argues that the global disruption caused by COVID-19 has given Oceanic nations an opportunity to rethink their reliance on the tourism sector which has historically exacerbated marginality in line with the forms that Ryan suggests. Lastly, Greg Watt argues that many of the key drivers that have inflicted marginalization on local tourist operators in Oceania have not been addressed in the 20 years since Ryan’s article was written. Drawing on personal current knowledge from the outlying island of Ambrym in Vanuatu, he suggests that the peripheral position of Ambrym in the tourist sector does not allow its peoples to control and benefit from their rich cultural capital imbued in wood carvings.

Critiquing Ryan’s Core/Periphery Model of Marginalities in Pacific Tourism – Lucas Watt

Marginality can be broadly defined as “an involuntary position and condition of an individual or group at the margins of social, political, economic, ecological, and biophysical systems, that prevent them from access to resources, assets, services, restraining freedom of choice, preventing the development of capabilities, and eventually causing extreme poverty” (Gatzweiler et al. 2011). Ryan’s (2001) article makes the case that there are a number of global geographic, political and economic factors that place indigenous peoples involved in the tourist industry on the margins with little capacity to gain a more elevated position of control and success. Generally, Ryan (2001) argues that; geographically, Pacific isolation in relation to the developed world makes it difficult to sustain affordable air transport from a variety of foreign locations, politically there is a lack of regional institutional organization to elevate indigenous interests and benefits in contrast to foreign interests, economically, indigenous peoples do not have access to the financial capital needed to directly develop their natural resources and are rather benevolent to foreign capital and its conditions whether it be from private investors or from foreign developmental aid. Based on these global geographic, political and economic factors, indigenous Pacific peoples in the tourist industry have few opportunities to emerge from their positions on the margins. Such a perspective aligns Ryans (2001) work with others that analyze Pacific development (or lack of) according to imbalanced core/periphery regional relationships (Sofer, 1988, 1993).

Within the core/periphery framework, Ryan (2001) does temper this general case of “marginalities” by stating that the presence of transnational tourist companies, such as club mediterranee do provide opportunities for the development of human capital for Pacific workers that would otherwise be unattainable. This argument attempts to re-frame the core/periphery relationship from one of imbalance, to one of stewardship, by arguing that access to the resources and skills of the core will help the periphery out of marginality. Ryan (2001) recognizes however that the idea of core/periphery stewardship is inherently flawed. Firstly he argues in direct relation to this argument concerning human capital development that; skilled expatriate labor, if available, is often preferred by commercially oriented transnational companies over Pacific labor which requires substantial effort and resources to develop. Secondly, in the case there is significant Pacific human capital development, Ryan recognizes that such skilled Pacific labor is susceptible to significant skill leakage as they gain opportunities to migrate away from the so called Pacific periphery to more economically developed markets. Lastly, and what makes this core/periphery stewardship argument the most dubious in my opinion, is that tourism in the Pacific is purposefully advertised and subsequently consumed according to the depersonalized and transactional terms of foreign markets. As a result tourist engagement in the Pacific is encouraged to be at odds with local expectations of social reciprocity. Local communities not being able to influence the nature of tourist engagement to align more to their own terms, to me, is the most indicative form of marginality as opposed to stewardship within the core/periphery framework. Ryan (2001) does well to identify and contest this stewardship type argument.

I recognize the importance of identifying the effects of these core/periphery relations on marginality, however my main argument against Ryan’s (2001) article is that systems that push indigenous populations to the margins are not always inherently based within the core/periphery paradigm. More local geographic, economic, and political structures, as well as social and cultural structures, have the capacity to both constrain and empower local populations in and out of “marginality” in ways that are not related to core/periphery relations. Local populations participate in the tourism industry, often in the informal or semi-formal sector, in ways that do not abide by the rules and rationales of foreign structures and relations. Rather, these indigenous populations are more guided by local social and cultural meaning embedded in local context (For an example and additional context, see Miyazaki, 2005). Rather then recognizing the capacity for indigenous populations to operate outside the constraints of core/periphery relations, Ryan (2001) argues that these peoples merely opt out of the tourism industry all together, when presented with unfavorable terms according to foreign norms and structures.

This omission limits the discussion on how marginality is created and alleviated in local context. I believe tourism literature generally should be more attentive to how indigenous populations engage with the tourist industry outside of the core/periphery paradigms for a more complete understanding of marginality.

Rethinking Marginalities during a Global Disruption – Roxane de Waegh

Following the detailed and informative summary given by Lucas Watt, I have decided to write a reflective piece that places Ryan’s (2001) arguments within a contemporary context. The COVID-19 disruption has given many of the Pacific island countries the opportunity to reflect on various ideas, values, and assumptions around the modernised and globalised world, and the influences that this world may have on their social-ecological systems. One of the greatest questions that many of the islands are now asking themselves is whether they want to keep investing in an economy that is dominated by tourism.

Small island states, from the Caribbean to the South Pacific, demonstrate a high level of dependence on tourism in terms of exports and contribution to GDP (UNTWO, 2018). Is it too late for the Pacific island nations to reverse the institutional inertia of this massive global industry? Is it possible for these culturally rich and biodiverse ecosystems to diversify their economies away from global market chains, in the hopes of becoming more self-reliant and resilient to future global disruptions?

This is where Ryan’s (2001) discussion on the role of transnational companies and overseas development aid (ODA) becomes increasingly interesting. Is it wise to have the international private sector design and implement plans to re-build tourism in a post-pandemic world? Or is it safer to depend on ODA that hides under the perhaps misleading titles such as the great Climate Change Fund – whose budgets, project designs, and time frames tend to reflect a Western approach of project implementation rather than a contextualised strategy operating on island time?

Due to the global disruption sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent collapse of the tourism industry, many Pacific islands are faced with unapparelled financial stress and increasing pressures from the private sectors, both local and international, to open their borders and welcome back the tourism monopoly. However, prior to making any final decisions, it is critical that remote island nations look beyond the advice offered by their financial and economic development ministries.

The tourism sector has introduced a debt-inducing capitalistic system, incentivised by globalisation, and fueled by consumerism – all of which can have drastic impacts on an otherwise traditional and remote island context. One example can be found in the Cook Islands. Hundreds of Cook Islanders are emigrating to New Zealand to support their families, as their tourism-based economy has collapsed (Milne, 2021). In a recent interview with Mark Brown, the Cook Island Prime Minister, Brown states ‘’If the tourists are not able to bring money into our country then our workers will go look for money overseas.’’ Referencing the 1996 economic crisis, Brown stated that the Cook Islanders have already experienced the challenges of trying to bring their people back home once they have moved to New Zealand or Australia: ‘’Our working-age people produce the outputs that our economy needs. And we need our entrepreneurs here to reopen our tourism-related business and help with the country’s economic recovery.’’ This statement is both accurate yet short-sighted. Yes, the young entrepreneurs and dynamic labour force is needed to help with the country’s economic recovery – but why must tourism be included in this strategy? It’s as if the economy cannot exist without its tourism counterpart. Can tourism really be the crutch for the dependency it created?

The very geographic marginality that Ryan (2001) has assigned as a limitation is now seen as a desired attribute for tourism destinations. The concept of remoteness is gaining popularity within the tourism sector, a movement that has grown hand in hand with the viral spreading of COVID 19 and the desire to escape densely crowded urban centers. However, is it wise to utilise this virtue of remoteness to reset the economy. It almost seems paradoxical that the very attribute that prevented the virus from spreading to the islands is the very attribute that will be used to attract urban dwellers from all over the world to re-boost an economy that is already plagued by debt – a debt that was introduced by the capitalistic and consumeristic behaviours that define the tourism industry.

Tourism, just like any aspect of globalisation, has its pros and its cons. However, in a moment of crisis, it is not wise to take the easiest way out-the fastest way to make money. The concepts of peripherality, marginalisation, and remoteness need to be perceived through the eyes of resilience – not of economic returns.

Updating Ryan’s Marginalisation and it’s Impact on Outlying Pacific Peoples – Greg Watt

Investigating marginalities, both from historical and futurist perspectives, highlight important consequences of socio-economic development. The value of Ryan’s article (2001) is not as an exercise in retrospective pondering but instead, an invitation to discuss ongoing notions of marginality in the Pacific. This discussion piece is not a critique of the article itself; rather, it looks at various marginalities mentioned by Ryan and their impacts on outlying island regions. While personal and community impacts are crucial social considerations, the discussion is focused on the effects occurring at the macro level that create these impacts.

Before knowing what futures may be possible or what directions can be navigated, it is judicious to examine the past and what has already been achieved (or not achieved). Ryan (2001) takes a snapshot of the difficulties faced by South Pacific countries in developing tourism as a socio-economic resource with an emphasis on significant marginalities that are created. While the snapshot is situated at the turn of the millennium, much remains relevant today.  Ryan is quick to point out that the article serves not to designate marginality but instead encourage discussion and engagement around development within Pacific countries. Moving forward, the article serves as a contextual point of reference.

Any forward-looking postulations depend on the perspectives of those hypothesising ongoing development. The contributions of Ravallion (2016; 2011) and others aside, a purely economic viewpoint is likely to be devoid of concerns of the wellbeing and development of society, other than in positing it in monetary considerations.  Conversely, social anthropologists active in the pacific sphere, such as Macintyre (Filer & Macintyre, 2006; Macintyre & Foale, 2004), or those involved in social development within the Pacific such as Scheyvens (2002, 2011; R. Scheyvens, Banks, Vunibola, Steven, & Meo-Sewabu, 2020), will prioritise aspects surrounding human and social development.

The first reality identified by Ryan (2001) concerns the propensity to use tourism as a development tool in the Pacific. What was true, and remains true today, is the inherent lack of primary resources of most South Pacific countries and their inability to compete globally. Tourism has been promoted as a development tool for less developed countries lacking basic industries and infrastructure. As Ryan points out, “these inhibiting factors can contribute to the attractiveness of tourism destination areas in a world that continues to seek the unspoilt” (Ryan, 2001, p. 43). However, questions remain regarding the necessity of imposing globalised socio-economic mechanisms evolved in developed nations into the global south using much shorter time-frames. Who are the winners and losers as a result of such economic experiments remains unclear? Pacific countries, particularly Melanesian countries, are often referred to as “Failed States”, but the terminology itself is a westernised ideal, making comparisons to developed nations during different times, histories and situations (Ratuva, 2014). Again, perspectives are deceiving, and Ratuva asserts that alternative social indexes such as the Happy Planet Index (HPI) formulated by the New Economic Foundation portray different realities regarding failed states.

Left to their own devices, most Pacific societies can live a happy and rewarding existence based on traditional ways and informal economics. Through this localised lens, marginalities outside of those embedded culturally have been minimal. Pacific societies developed a means whereby a holistic balance between people and all their resources occurred. Indeed, it is reasoned here that any failure to live empathetically with one another and the surrounding environment would lead to catastrophic outcomes. One of the most crucial resilience mechanisms has been kinship, often overlooked in most socio-economic considerations during such periods. Ratuva (2014) asserts that kinship provides a reservoir of Bourdieu’s “cultural capital” (Bourdieu, 1986).

The obligatory adoption of neoclassical economics, along with globalisation policies, have served to skew livelihoods, inserting monetary exchange systems that require mathematical rather than social equilibriums. Economic balance sheets move communities away from egalitarian conventions, creating inequalities between those receiving monetary income and those that don’t. It can be argued that marginalities have occurred as a result. In some South Pacific countries, tourism has dominated all aspects of social and economic interactions, distorting previous holistic ways of living, and ways of doing. Culturally derived social safety nets have been stripped away, exasperating differences between the haves, and the have-nots. It is asserted that tourism has acted to damage and not benefit the social development of Pacific peoples, creating greater inequalities rather than reducing them.

Economic considerations have dominated, and financial ruminations have demanded that tourism be carried out at scale to afford the best national income. However, the required investment is beyond most local means, and monetary transactions occur at arms-length to most. Consequently, tourism acts as a vehicle to marginalise Pacific peoples who cannot participate financially and are generally relegated to nominal employment. Ryan suggests that extensive leakages occur, leaving any economic benefits as “crumbs from the rich man’s table” (Ryan, 2001, p. 46). In the twenty-odd years since Ryan’s article, the marginalisation of locals has accelerated. Vanuatu, where tourism contributed 34.7%  of total GDP (World Travel & Tourism Council, 2020), can be used as an exemplar. Most tourism activity centres around its capital and has, by in large, been restricted to overseas entrepreneurs and multi-national companies. The development of local community-based tourism, while empowering local communities in their social and economic endeavours is noticeably absent except on Vanuatu’s outer islands. It is asserted that in the intervening period, since Ryan’s article, tourism has stratified previously socially homogeneous communities and disembowelled established cultural safety nets.

Secondary geographical marginalisation is equally culpable.  A lack of infrastructure investment in outlying regions ensures that tourism development is concentrated around urban areas. Without any concerted effort to develop supporting infrastructure away from major urban areas, cost-benefit exercises carried out by tourism developers ensures that projects are constructed close to metropolitan districts. This exasperates the process of internal migration and urbanisation, precipitating the marginalisation of peoples located on peripheral islands. The consequent depopulation reduces possible tourism opportunities. As well as this, only venturesome travellers wanting truly unique experiences travel further afoot from the main centres. Ryan notes that at that time, the “pattern of air routes poses problems for islands interested in generating tourism” (Ryan, 2001, p. 45). While his comments were aimed mainly at international routes, patchy air transportation has inhibited any serious tourism potential over the intervening years. The hub-and-spoke system used by most island nations limits travellers flying between different destination islands, constantly forcing return flights back to the hub, usually the capital. For travellers, this results in twice the number of flights, twice the costs, and twice the chance that a flight will be postponed or cancelled. Frequent changes to flight itineraries can add days to a journey through missed connections. Given that a significant trend in tourism is for shorter, more frequent trips, tourists simply do not risk trips to remoter regions. Despite being endowed with unique adventure attributes, the outer islands of Vanuatu attract only 10 % of tourist visitors.

Accompanying this are representations and imagery used by tourism marketers that typically collectivise most Pacific destinations as a similar unified offering. Much is driven by the expectations of tourists regarding their sun, sea and sand expectations. Power inequalities between tourist and host communities continue to drive tourism products regardless of whether these are readily available.  Ryan acknowledges that a “closer examination shows that some locations do not possess all these assets” (Ryan, 2001, p. 44) and this power inequality has seen tourism resorts importing sand (natural and crushed lime rock) to satisfy tourist expectations. This is compounded by the concentration of tourism around urban areas, which were originally settled because of their transport accessibility, rather than any propensity to possess idyllic topography.  As well as this, unlike Polynesian countries consisting largely of sandy atolls, Melanesian countries generally have larger island topographies possessing volcanic cores and coral perimeters. Despite being endowed with spectator landscapes and scenery, tourism operators still seek to manufacture the fantasy sought by tourists. As a result, communities rich in natural attributes but possess none that match the representations made within tourism marketing are marginalised.

At a tertiary level, if the promoted culture is not prevalent at the tourist destination, then it is simply imported from peripheral areas. Unlike many countries, sharp cultural differences occur between Melanesian islands furnishing a rich cultural diversity. However, while merely touched on by Ryan, cultural appropriation by the tourism industry has diminished authenticity and relegated outlying islands to backwaters over the past decades. The island of Ambrym, in the northern Vanuatu group, is renowned for its complex culture of black magic and wood carving. The unique creativity amongst “Man Ambrym” is in part due to their proximity to two active volcanoes, Benbow and Marum, whose lava lakes routinely produce explosions, lava flows, ash and gas emissions along with fissure eruptions. Each carving produced on the island is distinct, imbued with deep meaning derived from the particular location on the island, along with the carver’s identity. Each individual piece has a story, and it is culturally important that the story is understood, respected and carried with the work. However, the carvings are highly sought after, and with only small tourism flows to the island itself, carvings are imported into the capital Port Vila. Often authentic carvings from the island are supplemented by those carved by Ambrym artisans located in Port Vila, and also by other carvers not from the island. Increasingly, the story is lost, the intricacies and detail of the carvings are watered down, and the associated authenticity is lost. Commodification effectively devalues Ambrym culture and disenfranchises the island’s artisans. Furthermore, the supplanting of Ambrym culture away from the island to the capital lessens the incentive for tourists to visit the island. The consequent usurping of Ambrym’s cultural intellectual property is a mechanism that obstructs meaningful tourism development on the island itself, and transfers its worth to third party entrepreneurs located in the central hub of Port Vila.

In summary, this discussion has touched on the marginalisation detailed of Ryan’s article (2001) due to the impact of national tourism strategies as they have impacted peripheral regions. Much of the concern voiced then, has in fact, materialised. It is clear that the economics of establishing tourism at scale, even if intended to be pro-poor, has not only marginalised rural peoples but acted to inhibit local tourism start-ups in outlying islands. The mechanism has occurred across three distinct levels; firstly, through prioritisation of economic rather than social strategies; secondly, the adoption of centralised rather than distributed tourism development; and lastly, permitting the disenfranchising of local people and their cultural character. If allowed to continue, peripheral regions will become emaciated, robbing Pacific countries of their richness and ultimately stripping regional peoples of their island identities. Unless concerted and unambiguous strategies are put in place, tourism will not be remembered as the saviour of Pacific societies, but instead, their assassin.

Banner Image by Greg Watt

TransOcean is a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant project 

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 802223


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  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

  • gregwatttraveller

    Greg Watt is an advocate for authenticity in tourism and travel. Greg has previously lived in Papua New Guinea, has had an involvement with tourism in Vanuatu for the past thirteen years and presently has a close association with a community-based tourism project on Tanna Island (seven years). Greg is a doctoral candidate at Auckland University of Technology, and his Master’s thesis was titled “A Pro-Poor Tourism Case Study: Efate Island, Vanuatu” which looks at ways that poor Ni-Vanuatu can benefit through tourism. For a more detailed look at Greg’s involvement within development and tourism have a look at his blog articles which can be found at https://watt.nz.

  • roxanedewaegh

    My name is Roxane de Waegh and I am a PhD student at the Faculty of Culture and Society at Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. I am originally from Belgium, but grew up a bit all over the world, including Congo, Senegal, Singapore, Chile, Argentina, Japan, USA, and Canada. The ocean, the concept of remoteness, and the complexity of connectivity have always fascinated me. After working as a marine biologist for nearly 6 years with various environmental NGOs in remote coastal communities, including Myanmar, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, I have come back to the academic world, hoping to deepen my understanding of the intrinsic paradoxical nature of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs) in marginalised coastal communities.

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