Text by Global Travel Editor Costas Christ
Photograph by Jim and Sheila Glavine
During hard economic times, how do you convince rural communities living next to unspoiled natural areas to see a brighter future? If you are Donald Trump, who wants to build the world’s "best" gold course on wild sand dunes along the coast of north Aberdeen, Scotland, or Plum Creek Timber Corporation in USA, who are seeking rezoning approval to carve up more than 400,000 acres of wilderness for resort development and vacation houses around Moosehead Lake in Maine, you prey on local economic fears in a down economy. Although unrelated, both mega-tourism development projects have more than golf courses in common. They need special permits to proceed and they have argued that denying them that approval translates into economic stagnation.
Trump was recently in Scotland, where he decided to personally face off against those nagging gadfly’s of progress – environmental groups. Conservation organizations, including Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, among others, have raised serious concerns over Trump’s plans to build two 18-hole golf courses, a 450 room hotel, conference centre, spa, golf academy, 950 holiday homes, 36 golf villas and accommodations for 400 staff on fragile sand dunes that are an officially designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and home to thousands of migrating birds. Trump has said that if he does not get approval for his plan the way he wants it, he will take his multi-million dollar investment someplace else (apparently where his generosity will be appreciated). He referred to Scottish opponents of his development plan as "imbeciles". In fairness, Trump described himself as "an environmentalist" during questioning in the three week public inquiry held last month on the project.
Across the Atlantic in Maine, home to the largest remaining wilderness expanse east of the Mississippi – the North Woods – Plum Creek Timber Corporation is locked in a heated battle with local opponents and conservation organizations, including Maine Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, in an effort to gain rezoning approval to build more than 2000 resort rooms, condos, and vacation homes, in addition to a golf course, marina, restaurants, gift shops, staff housing, service buildings, etc. in the heart of back-country forests, lakes, and rivers. That it also happens to be in an area of abundant wildlife, including moose, bear and endangered species like the Canadian Lynx, doesn’t seem to matter. Like Trump, Plum Creek has threatened to take their economic investment elsewhere (where it will be better appreciated, no doubt) if they cannot get the zoning approval they want. The approach represents hardball fear tactics during hard economic times. In both cases, project opponents have sought compromises, but bottom line issues, like not building on the wild dunes of Scotland, and not putting a 400 room resort in the Lily Bay wildlife corridor of Moosehead Lake, where the endangered Canadian Lynx roams, have been met with firm resistance by the corporate real estate giants.
How much actual economic gain to local communities comes from mega-tourism projects like this in largely unspoiled natural areas? Historical experience points to a small pool of investors reaping large profits, with locals getting the crumbs from the economic table while ever-dwindling wilderness is destroyed in the process. At a time when global tourism trends show a growing interest among travelers to experience more nature, along with cultural authenticity and "sense of place", over-blown development projects like these are throwbacks to tourism’s poorly planned past, and not the new sustainable tourism vision needed for the future.