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The Relationship Between the Economy and Tourism on Catalina Island


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View from a high point in Avalon, Catalina Island. Photo by Allison Jervis.

View from a high point in Avalon, Catalina Island. Photo by Allison Jervis.

By Sarah Wood

Balancing the environment and the economy is difficult, especially on a sparsely populated island such as Santa Catalina Island. Located approximately 20 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, Catalina’s economy is largely dependent on the tourists that visit the island each year. One of the main draws for tourists is the natural environment, which heavily contrasts the urbanization of Los Angeles. While Catalina has a history of environmental conservation, a variety of challenges lie ahead as Catalina tries to increase the number of tourists that visit each year without negatively impacting the environment.

In 1972, Philip Wrigley created the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy in order to balance the tourism and conservation of the island. He gave 88% of the island to the conservancy for the purpose of improving the environment while allowing visitors to explore and enjoy it. Since then, the Conservancy and Island Company have continued to attract tourists to the island and sustain not only the island’s environment, but also its economy.

Wrigley was wise to include in his mandate to the Conservancy that the island provide a “playground for recreationalists,” because to this day, Catalina’s economy revolves around tourism, and without it, businesses would likely fail. Many of the Island’s residents and business owners rely on tourism as their main income. By and large, the economy is extremely linear to the amount of tourists who visit the island each year.

In May 2007, a major brush fire on the island had a devastating impact not only on the Catalina environment, but also the economy. The fire was on national news for three days and made the burn seem much worse than it really was–though ten percent of the island was charred, only one building in Avalon was destroyed, but the news made it seem as though the entire city had burnt to the ground. This significantly decreased tourism for the following summer, with a ten thousand visitor decrease in May and June compared to that of 2006, and a fourteen thousand visitor decline in July compared to the previous year. However, many efforts have been made to bring Catalina back into the economic state it was pre-fire, including extra efforts to restore the original flora that had been destroyed (Chamber of Commerce, personal communication).

Renting paddle-boards is one of the many adventurous ways to enjoy Catalina Island without harming the environment. Photo by Allison Jervis.

Renting paddle-boards is one of the many adventurous ways to enjoy Catalina Island without harming the environment. Photo by Allison Jervis.

Spontaneous day-trippers are very seasonal visitors, flocking to Catalina in the hot summertime and staying away during the cold months. The existing attractions are already enough to bring in a maximum number of tourists during the summer season. This uneven distribution of visitors results in businesses suffering most in the winter, but also in the fall and spring. The shoulder months are where Catalina has room to grow and increase their flow of tourism, and the next big way to do this is by enhancing the appeal of Catalina’s environment.

Ecotourism is a great way to bring visitors to the island during off months because there are many eco-tourist attractions that are ideal for cooler weather. The Conservancy advertises hiking tours and biking across the island, both of which are best to do in the fall or spring because it is not scorching hot, places are not crowded so nature is more exposed, and the vegetation is lush and thriving. This is where Catalina has room to grow when it comes to attracting tourists – not during the summer months, but in the spring, winter, and fall.

The Conservancy is also looking into the future to create new projects to improve tourism year round. There are plans for a new campground for people who are backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail, so they have a more accessible place to stay before and after their hike. The Eagle’s Nest Lodge is currently not regularly visited, but the Conservancy is looking to renovate it so it becomes a destination to learn about the history and ecology of the island, as well as hold community events.

People like the summer naturalists that the conservancy hires to appeal to families visiting in the summer may hold events at the Eagle’s Nest Lodge, such as campfire activities, mini-seminars, or hikes. The ever-contested gondola ride was proposed in May 2012 with the intentions of providing an easy, inexpensive way to leave Avalon and explore the rest of the island.

Many biologists were worried about this project, because they believed that it demonstrated the Conservancy’s shifted motives of generating revenue rather than protecting the ecology. However, the gondola ride was just a conceptual idea, and is extremely far from being seriously considered, if it ever will be at all (Alexa Johnson, personal communication).

So far, the Conservancy has done an excellent job at preserving the environment and balancing conservation, education, and recreation throughout the island. The Catalina Island fox draws a significant amount of people to the island just to encounter this endemic species, so there is even more reason for the Conservancy to focus its efforts on this fox’s protection. Vehicles are the main cause of Island fox mortality, mainly because they are either driving dangerously or in places that the fox frequents.

To stop these unnecessary deaths, the Conservancy has established a twenty-five mile per hour speed limit on the interior of the island, along with a permit required to enter this area. The Conservancy has also limited the use of roads outside of Avalon, by turning down proposals to build in natural areas, and by using fences to block off certain roads to all but emergency vehicles (Alexa Johnson, personal communication). These restrictions have significantly lowered fox mortality, thus enhancing the appeal of the island to tourists.

One of the non-native bison lounging in the grass near Two Harbors, Catalina Island. Photo by the author.

One of the non-native bison lounging in the grass near Two Harbors, Catalina Island. Photo by the author.

The Conservancy’s efforts may not always center purely on conservation because they also must appeal to tourists, but they make sure to not degrade the environment in the process. Though the bison on Catalina are a non-native species, the Conservancy recognizes them as a tourist attraction. Thus, they must devise a plan that allows the bison to remain on the island while minimizing their negative impact on native plants and animals.

Research has been conducted to calculate the “magic number” of bison (150-200 individuals) that can live on the island without being dangerous to others and still maintain adequate food. After a significant number of bison had been deported to the mainland, the Conservancy implemented a revolutionary contraceptive method where female bison are darted annually with hormones to prevent pregnancy and maintain the ‘magic number’.

If the population were to decline, fewer females could be darted to allow the population to increase the following year (Alexa Johnson of the Conservancy, personal communication). In this way, the Conservancy does not necessarily focus only on conserving native species, but it sustainably controls the ecology that attracts tourists.

The Conservancy’s twenty-year “Imagine Catalina” plan gives detailed plans for how to improve the appeal and accessibility of ecotourism on the island. Over the past three years, Catalina Island has already invested twelve million dollars into creating new attractions on the island, including the ever-popular zipline, which has already generated great revenue since its recent implementation.

However, the most anticipated project from the plan is the rebuilding of the Hotel Catherine, the oldest hotel on Catalina. The vision for the future is for the Hotel Catherine to become the new Conservancy headquarters located in a much more populated area than the current headquarters that is off an old beaten path. The new location of the headquarters will make booking eco-tours, including jeeps and guided hikes, easier and more accessible for tourists.

In addition, people will be able to learn about the island’s ecology here before they actually venture out to explore it. Many tourists have complained that they run out of things to do on Catalina, but that is because they do not venture outside of Avalon. The Hotel Catherine will act as a gateway to link tourists to the endless amount of attractions across the whole island, in the hopes that they will continue to come back and see all there is to experience.

The local business owners on Catalina have many other ideas for attracting tourists to the island. Tina Kennedy, a worker at the local dive shop called ScubaLuv in Avalon, thinks that by hiring a new trash company that puts more emphasis on recycling and composting, people will appreciate the cleanliness and “go green” initiative Catalina is taking, and will want to support the island more.

She also thinks that by cleaning up the water surrounding Avalon, more people will want to dive along the coast and may be more inclined to engage in water activities. The most common response from all of these island locals, however, is to have more cruise ships or ferries to the island so there is more cost-competitive options for travellers. With all of these ideas generated constantly, Catalina has plenty of room to grow in the future.

While an increase in ships may enhance tourism and the economy in the short term, however, it may have a negative effect on the environment in the long run. Mass amounts of ships flocking to Catalina may not follow pollution regulations specific to the island, and may have a negative impact on the surrounding waters and thus the diving, snorkeling, and other water-related tourist activities. Additionally, if masses of tourists rush to the island and disregard their personal impact on the environment, they may neglect rules established by the Conservancy that protect the ecosystems. The island must seek a balance between the environment and tourism to be sure they complement each other rather than having one dominate the other.

Catalina’s economy and amount of tourists are directly related; they rise and fall together. The addition to this relationship that people are just beginning to realize is that the ecology of the island also heavily impacts tourism, and thus the economy. Catalina sets a wonderful example for other small, isolated islands to improve their economy by transforming themselves into a tourist destination.

Catalina is already doing many things to improve tourism, from birthday deals to restaurant enhancements. However, the main way Catalina and any small island will have a chance to grow in the future is by focusing on enhancing the environment, understanding how to protect it, and how to advertise its beauty to the world. Most companies on the island have already taken major leaps towards encouraging ecotourism, and by remaining on this path, its likely that this island will continue to have a thriving environment, tourist flow, and economy.

About the author: Sarah Wood is a freshman from Huntington Beach, California. She is pursuing Environmental Studies and Business at the University of Southern California, and is a member of the 2013 Guam and Palau dive team. In the future, she hopes to develop new techniques that will make fresh water accessible to all people.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

Previously in this series:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins
A New Faculty Member on the Team
An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact
Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich
Northern Elephant Seals: Increasing Population, Decreasing Biodiversity

About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. CDC53 2:03 pm 05/27/2013

    This article is all over the place and poorly researched!

    The author does not even talk about yearly private boat tourism which is a huge factor to the island economy year round.

    Also, If this author did her research and interviewed people she would find that the Conservancy is now VERY poorly run. To start, the Conservancy has run most of the PAYING yacht clubs off the island with 200-1000% lease increases and radically increased mooring fees to all boaters in 2010. The Conservancy leader has also driven off and alienated major donors and long time stable employees. The Conservancy leadership has also veered from the original conservation plan for the island. A good example of this is allowing a winery in the middle of this water scarce island. Where was the study and impact reports on this??? What next is the conservancy going to allow? Condos and major property development?

    This is not how you promote ecotourism or business on a very sensitive island with a micro habitat that needs protecting.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/24/local/la-me-catalina-dissent-20121224
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/10/dining/on-santa-catalina-island-a-winemaking-couples-costly-pursuit.html?_r=0

    Link to this

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