Vermont-based firm to study tourism impacts on Block Island

THE BLOCK ISLAND TOURISM COUNCIL has contracted a Vermont-based tourism consultancy firm to study societal and environmental impacts of tourism on Block Island. The study, which began on Feb. 15, will be conducted to find solutions for sustainability. Pictured, passengers disembark from the Block Island Ferry at Old Harbor on Block Island. /PBN FILE PHOTO/CASSIUS SHUMAN

NEW SHOREHAM – The Block Island Tourism Council has contracted a firm to study societal and environmental impacts of tourism on Block Island.

The study, which began on Feb. 15, will be conducted by Burlington, Vermont-based tourism consultancy firm, EplerWood International, to find solutions for sustainability.

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A review of social and environmental impacts will be conducted using a framework formulated and tested in the field by the Harvard School of Public Health under the direction of Principal Investigator Dr. Jack Spengler.

Megan Epler Wood, founder and president of EWI, said the study’s findings will be presented in August or September to the New Shoreman Town Council and Block Island Tourism Council. The study is being funded by Harvard International Sustainable Tourism Initiative; the school’s first research unit focused entirely on sustainable tourism.

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“My team will meet with stakeholders to fully understand where the pressures lie and develop indicators that can be measured using surveys and data that is presently available,” said Wood, who happens to be a descendant of James Sands, one of the founders of Block Island.

Wood noted that the study can help Block Island pinpoint the pressures on their current utility services and make certain tourism is not outstripping capacity or creating highly inefficient uses of local resources.

“Our goal is to help Block Island to manage their resources efficiently, help move them toward lower environmental impacts and allow the town to evaluate how to manage tourism in a way that does not lead to higher and higher utility pricing for local people,” she said. “We can look at social sustainability questions that may plague local residents, such as traffic congestion in the high season, and the overall importance of maintaining Block Islands natural and biodiversity assets with funding properly in place in part from the tourism economy.”

Wood said that similar studies have shown an important gap in reporting on key indicators of tourism uses of utilities, including energy, solid waste, wastewater, and the question of carbon emissions.

“Our research indicates that there is an invisible burden on destinations worldwide from tourism which needs to be measured in order to properly manage tourism,” she said. “There are many costs associated with tourism that need to be properly measured and managed to ensure local people are not covering excess costs caused by the tourism economy. We are excited to work with Block Island on this matter.”

Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council, said the study aligns with her mission of creating sustainable tourism on Bock Island. Willi saw Wood speak at the Rhode Island Statehouse in 2018 and realized there was a “whole world of sustainability research and reporting available.”

Willi invited Wood to speak at the tourism council’s annual meeting in October.

“I am hoping to continue moving Block Island down the path of sustainable tourism,” Willi said. “Sustainable tourism is tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of locals, the industry, the environment and visitors.”

Willi said the tourism council has support of the town council regarding the study with the hope that some actionable suggestions move Block Island forward in its goal of building a sustainable tourism economy.

“How we use the acquired information will depend on what the information is, but I am happy that we have the town on board to help move us forward,” she said.

Wood has made an impression statewide in Rhode Island.

Bob Billington, CEO and president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council for more than 30 years, invited Wood to speak to the council in 2020, and at the Statehouse in 2018. Billington said the council has been working to revive a post-industrial landscape in Blackstone Valley for the past 50 years.

“Even, with the longest polluted river on the continent, ecotourism can emerge,” he said. “Even with 200 years of industrialization we can bring the environment back. It’s expensive, it takes decades, and it’s just not right to let profit overpower the natural environment.”

Billington said his region was guilty of that type of behavior in the 1600s with the Blackstone River.

“We are paying the price. But we are fighting our way back,” he said. “Everything we do in the Blackstone Valley is about bringing back rivers that are drinkable, swimmable and fishable.”

Billington said Anika Kimble-Huntley, Rhode Island’s chief marketing officer, is developing the state’s first sustainable tourism development action plan.

“This is a major step forward in our lifespan of welcoming visitors and planning for our future,” he said.

Kimble-Huntley said her office at R.I. Commerce Corp. is supportive of the study being conducted on Block Island.

“This type of collaboration falls in line with future plans we have at Rhode Island Commerce Corp. to create a statewide sustainable tourism action plan,” she said.

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Shuman@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @CassiusShuman.

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