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Strange bedfellows

Contact points: Oil development and tourism in coastal communities

special feature: COASTS

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial's leadership and expertise in cold ocean and Arctic science, technology and society (COASTS).

By Janet Harron

For those living in the North Atlantic region — such as Newfoundland and Labrador, Scotland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland — oil and tourism often share social and ecological space, but rarely cultural or political space.

Sociologist Dr. Mark Stoddard is interested in when and how contact points emerge.

Dr. Mark Stoddart
Dr. Mark Stoddart
Photo: Mike Ritter

International focus

Dr. Stoddart studies the linkages between tourism and oil development in coastal communities.

He is extending his previous work on the Newfoundland and Labrador tourism sector to a more international focus with his latest Social Sciences and Humanities and Research Council Insight grant. In 2016 and winter 2017 he spent a month each in Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Scotland to determine when and how oil and tourism come into contact, both through conflict but also potentially as complementary development paths.

Locating and interviewing individuals involved in tourism, government and environmental groups went well, but, in Dr. Stoddart’s experience, it was difficult as a social sciences researcher to get access to political and economic elites.

“If you’re in a business school compared to a social sciences faculty, that experience is a bit different,” he said. “I think when the recruitment letter arrives saying business rather than sociology, the uptake is significantly different.”

‘Narratives of place’

As a result, Dr. Stoddart opted to engage in “event ethnography” by attending energy industry events, including NOIA’s annual conferences, Offshore North Seas (Norway) and an Oil and Gas U.K. event in Scotland. Nature-based tourism sites that create narratives of place were also examined. These included typical beaches and hiking trails but also, somewhat surprisingly, tourism sites built around oil.

“One thing that has been really interesting is spending time at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum in Stavanger. Also, the Maritime Museum in Aberdeen, with its significant oil-oriented collection, and the Maritime Museum Esbjerg on the west coast of Denmark,” said Dr. Stoddart. “All have oil woven into the tourism narratives of place – much the same way as the Johnson Geo Centre does locally.”

Esbjerg Harbour, Denmark.
Esbjerg Harbour, Denmark
Photo: Submitted

He is currently collaborating with colleagues in Italy and the University of Waterloo on a book and presented the project’s first working paper in the spring of 2017 at the Centre for Social Movement Research in Florence, Italy.

To date, his findings indicate that oil and tourism don’t usually come into dialogue until there is a conflict, like the one currently underway around Norway’s Lofoten Islands over opening “closed areas” for oil exploration.

Oil can also be a form of tourism in and of itself. Denmark’s Esbjerg, an oil town in the middle of a major national park, is a rare example of the two sectors being brought together.

“It’s like if Fort Mac was in the middle of Jasper National Park,” said Dr. Stoddart.

The downturn

Of course, energy doesn’t just mean oil.

And like Newfoundland and Labrador, Scotland, Denmark and Norway have all been affected by the downturn in oil prices. Iceland, having just started exploratory work in 2014 when worldwide oil prices crashed, is currently considered a “hypothetical” producer.

According to Dr. Stoddart, Denmark has done a very good job of leveraging its workforce and infrastructure into the wind sector and has weathered the downturn more successfully than others.

And despite Stavanger’s position as Europe’s oil and gas capital, Norway has moved aggressively in its transition to renewables and electric cars.

“Norway is full of contradictions,” said Dr. Stoddart. “It has been able to maintain a green image and meet its Paris commitments while maintaining a strong oil sector that is the basis of its economy.”

Although Aberdeen has been significantly impacted by the downturn, tourism is not a major draw for the city. However, with more than 200 years as an established tourism destination, overall Dr. Stoddart considers Scotland to be an excellent example of tourism governance.

Timing is everything

Although seismic work is currently underway in Iceland, the idea of the country becoming an oil producer has virtually disappeared.

In the past five years, tourism has grown incredibly fast in the country, becoming the major economic driver for the country. That in itself brings its own problems, including a lack of affordable rental accommodation for students.

“It’s about getting out of our local headspace and seeing what is happening elsewhere.” — Dr. Mark Stoddart

As another traditionally resource-dependent society, Newfoundland and Labrador can and should pay attention to these other North Atlantic examples, Dr. Stoddart says.

“It’s about getting out of our local headspace and seeing what is happening elsewhere. The struggles are similar but we can see forms of development that are using similar social and ecological space,” said Dr. Stoddart, who discusses environmental governance in The Democracy Cookbook.

“We can learn a lot from how Denmark has leveraged its oil expertise to make a successful transition to wind energy. Or from how Norway continues to negotiate tensions and paradoxes while arguably harvesting oil more sustainably and more socially responsibly than any other country on earth.”

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