By Dave Randle ’71
Because I grew up in California and Utah loving the beaches, mountains and parks, I’ve always had an interest in the environment. Still, I didn’t know the nuances of issues before the first Earth Day in 1970. As religious activities commissioner for Cal Lutheran, I helped to create an educational program that actually took up a full week and was offered to the entire city of Thousand Oaks. That experience changed my whole focus and mission in life. It kicked off my career in environmental education, planning, policy and management, and eventually allowed me to see much of the world.
Many years after college, in 2005, I moved from Utah to coastal Florida to co-found the U.S. International Ocean Institute Office. One of our first big events was a World Oceans Day event in 2007 that included a press conference, concert and esteemed ocean panel with Noel Brown, first director of the United Nations Environment Programme for North America; Philippe Cousteau Jr.; Vladimir Golitsyn, director of the U.N. Division of Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea; Paul Boyle, director of the Ocean Project; Frank Muller-Karger, member of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy; and actor Ed Begley Jr., who came all the way from California in his Prius to avoid flying.
When we considered what we should do with this new office, what we might focus on that no one else was in order to protect marine ecosystems, the luminaries all had pretty much the same answer: tourism. Before then, I had never really thought about tourism and the oceans. Once you make the connection, however, it is obvious and powerful. Think of the 1.3 billion arrivals by tourists each year, the 80 percent of ocean pollution that is land-based, the plastics that make up over 90 percent of that pollution, and the overfishing and damage to coral reefs accelerated by tourism.
The point is not that tourism is bad for the planet, but that it matters immensely. It can be a best friend of the global environment or a worst enemy. This one industry represents more than 10 percent of the world’s economic output, employs about 12 percent of the whole world’s workforce, and grows faster than any other sector. What’s also important is that, unlike other big industries like fossil fuels and mining, tourism has an interest in keeping at least its own environment pristine. That environment is the product the industry sells.
At the Blue Community Observatory here at the University of South Florida, my colleagues and I work together to convert positive incentives within the industry into best practices. Launched in 2016, our observatory measures the environmental impact of South Florida’s tourism industry across nine dimensions. Twenty-one other sustainable tourism observatories around the world collect comparable data on their own regions. In the Blue Community, we conduct additional studies focusing on coastal habitat protection, enhancement and restoration.
Some of the projects are creative and can be replicated beyond our region. As an example, we recently went to an eco-village in St. Petersburg and used grant money to build a low-cost biodigester. The idea was to make a system where you can throw in food waste and convert it into gas for cooking, as an alternative to cutting down trees and also to disposing of waste in rivers. We put a discarded IBC tank together with other containers to produce and store the biogas, using plumbing equipment from Home Depot. We did it deliberately low-cost because we wanted to take it to Cuba and developing countries.
I am a strong believer that global problems need global solutions. We can’t accomplish things in our own silos, and we can’t address issues like climate change or ocean acidification or even fresh water without crossing boundaries. It’s just not possible to do.
Dave Randle, PhD, is the director of sustainable tourism at USF’s Patel College of Global Sustainability and a board member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.