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A Year In Review: 2020 trends on islands worldwide

James Ellsmoor is the director of Island Innovation and founder of the Virtual Island Summit (Photograph supplied)

As the year comes to a close, it is time to reflect on some of the positive initiatives that have been deployed by island communities around the world. Island economies have been some of the worst affected globally by the pandemic, with key industries such as tourism being particularly hard-hit. However, many islands have also used their geography to their advantage, eradicating the Covid virus and even preventing it entering at all.

Throughout 2020, island communities have shown a willingness to adapt to external shocks, and these four trends highlight global changes that could provide both challenges and opportunities:

Redefining tourism

As the world adapted to working from home, and organisations sought to find new ways to operate remotely, islands in the Caribbean began to create new visa programmes aimed at the growing number of companies that are allowing their staff to work remotely.

Both Bermuda and Barbados opened their borders to remote workers and their families, echoing developments in other islands centred around attracting these digital nomads. The one-year renewable visas offered by both nations contain a range of advantages on top of the access to high-quality internet and perks of island life, such as tax benefits and access to local infrastructure.

Additionally, these visas are set to become available to nomads that are able to prove they are under contract or capable of supporting themselves while in-country. This ensures that the remote workers that are moving to Bermuda or Barbados do not take away jobs from islanders while being able to contribute to the local economy. The programme has proved successful, with international interest leading to several other nations considering and implementing similar visas — but has also highlighted the importance of having a strong technological and internet network.

Other islands, such as Arranmore in Ireland, invested in high-speed internet before the pandemic with a view to reducing population loss and reinvigorating their local economies. Decentralised working provides an interesting opportunity to both attract long-term tourists but also provide new job opportunities for islanders themselves.

Legal developments

In 2020, Vanuatu became one of only six countries to rise from the level of Least Developed Country since the United Nations created the designation in 1971. Despite growing amounts of external shocks, the Pacific nation’s development over the past several years ensures its graduation. Its new designation is expected to generate interest among overseas investors and help the nation work towards the implementation of its sustainable development programme, the Smooth Transition Strategy.

While Vanuatu’s rise from the LDC list and commitment to the STS have been commended, it has also been mulling a much larger project: taking wealthy polluting countries to court. The continued inaction of certain major polluters in the face of a worsening climate crisis has led to many discussions regarding how they could be jolted into action. There is no precedence or blueprint for what the island nation is seeking to do, but they are determined to have their case heard.

The strong development the low-lying islands have enjoyed and helped lift out of the LDC are being threatened directly by climate change. Although islands are some of the first to be impacted, there are barriers in their way to being able to mitigate or cope with the issues they face. International policy will need to catch up with the consequences that climate change has on nations such as Vanuatu, and their government’s potential decision to pursue legal action against wealthy polluters may provide the spark needed to lead to lasting change.

Building bridges

St Helena’s government has sought to improve the island’s future prospects by securing an agreement to have not one, but two connections to high-speed internet. The island is expected to replace its slow satellite internet connection by as early as August 2021. Located almost 2,000 kilometres from the African mainland, St Helena will benefit from the planned Equiano undersea cable being laid along the coast of West Africa, as well as the South Atlantic Express set to connect South Africa and Brazil.

On top of making the decision to invest in creating digital bridges, St Helena’s government is also aiming to become a member of a different type of network. The island is exploring the possibility of acquiring Small Island Developing State status and joining the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean as an associate member. This new status and membership would allow St Helena more opportunities for economic investment aimed at further improving local infrastructure as part of its push to become a tourism hub.

The exciting developments involving this island in the South Atlantic are an encouraging sign for isolated island communities — opportunities are on the way. St Helena’s innovative governance has provided others with a blueprint on making the most of international networks to create digital bridges. These connections will not only help provide them with opportunities for knowledge-sharing and additional funding, but also to help build a better future for their community, more connected to the outside world.

Call for action

A topic not usually broached in mass media but that has made waves in the sporting world, the documentary Oceans Apart has addressed the elephants in the boardroom of World Rugby. Produced by the Pacific Rugby Player Welfare group headed by former international player Dan Leo, the documentary interviews present and former Pacific Island players on their experiences in the sport. They discuss the corruption present in Pacific Island rugby, the sometimes predatory scouting practices, the lack of support players can receive when travelling across the world for a contract opportunity, as well as the rules in place that stop islanders from representing their home nations.

A sport growing in popularity globally, rugby union has had to deal with several issues regarding player welfare, health and racism in recent years. The organisation governing the sport, World Rugby, has worked towards addressing these issues and has strived to be progressive in its management, but the Pacific Islands have always been a difficult subject to broach. Pacific Island players have had a storied history in the game, but also an equally dark one.

Leo’s Oceans Apart seeks acknowledgement for that past, highlights the issues still present, and lays out solutions that could help protect players. The crux of the message laid out by the documentary is that for equality to be achieved, the acknowledgement of past wrongdoings as well as commitments to changing the status quo need to be embraced — a message that isn’t limited to sport. While Oceans Apart deals with issues in a specific sport, the overarching themes are central to that of many rallying calls that have defined 2020.

Looking forward

Islands globally have for years sought to fight through their geographic isolation to have their voices heard and share their expertise with the world. In the face of unparalleled uncertainty, global islands have been working towards finding solutions in a range of fields including but not limited to sustainable development, technology, science and sport. As we approach a new year with hopes for more stability, it is certain to bring forward more growth and innovation among island communities.

James Ellsmoor is the director of Island Innovation and founder of the Virtual Island Summit. The network connects over 100,000 islanders from around the world, using “digital bridges” to share knowledge and encourage collaboration between islands and build a more sustainable future. Send feedback to james@islandinnovation.com

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Published December 28, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 27, 2020 at 10:54 am)

A Year In Review: 2020 trends on islands worldwide

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