Prior to my academic career I was a tourism practitioner – as a twenty something white, British woman, having done an exchange year at an Indonesian University, I set up, managed and ran a tour operating company in Indonesia. In many ways I was what is now referred to as a social entrepreneur. I ran tours not only for my livelihood but also always to help the remote communities where I took tourists to. Contributions from the tourists to a village in Flores was used to bring water to the village. This was the beginning of a relationship with that village that has endured over 30 years, and my first experience of the water-tourism nexus. When I embarked on my PhD I wanted to work on something that was useful for the researchees and I knew I would go back to Flores. Presenting the results of my research to the villagers, local government and other stakeholders (at considerable expense to myself – not only returning to the other side of the world, but paying for a meeting room, providing transport for the villagers and refreshments for attendees) was my first multi-stakeholder meeting (without knowing that was a thing or having any training). The results were the Code of Conduct, developed and distributed to educate tourists on how to behave in the villages (Cole, 2007). I have returned to the villages in Flores every couple of years and it is this longitudinal nature of my research which is one of my contributions to tourism knowledge. My monograph (2008) traced twenty years of tourism development on Flores. So many studies provide a snap shot of a place at a particular time. So much in tourism changes so quickly, so much research is out of date by the time it is published. The second reason longitudinal research is so valuable is its impact.

Tourism and Water: An Evolving Understanding

My study of the tourism and water nexus has defined my research for the past 12 years. It has demonstrated that tourism adds to pressure on water resources directly contributing to water scarcity and inequity, posing a direct threat to people’s right to health while exacerbating existing poverty and generating conflict and societal instability, and affecting gender relations.  Bringing first a political ecology perspective (Cole, 2012), then a Human Rights view (Cole, 2014) followed by gendered political ecology perspective (Cole, 2015; 2016), and most recently an intersectional gendered political ecology approach (Cole, 2017) it is possible to see how a) my learning has developed and b) how I have doggedly stayed in the same field sites in order to have a longitudinal perspective and always taken an action approach to generate impact.

Given that the majority of tourism research is undertaken within an overarching neoliberal paradigm (Tribe et al., 2015) political ecology was (and still is) an extremely limited field in tourism but offered me the tools to explore the complex relations between water and tourism through a careful analysis of access to and control over water resources and their implications for the environment and destination communities.

It was during my first field work that I recognised (but did not explore) that it was always women who bore the brunt of water shortages – frequently caused by the inequitable use of water by hotels. If political ecology in tourism is rare, gendered political ecology is where I stand alone. This is surprising in my mind given the environmental consequences of tourism and that gender is “a critical variable in shaping resource access and control, interacting with class, caste, race, culture, and ethnicity to shape processes of ecological change,” (Rocheleau et al., 1996, p. 4). Plenty has been written on the unequal gendered power relations embedded in the tourism sector, but socio-environmental issues have not yet been subject to systematic gender analysis.  A gendered political ecology approach considers a range of environmental rights and responsibilities including property, resources, and use of space. It ensures that the voices of women and other marginalized sections of the community are heard, their issues of access and control are considered, and is thus a very valuable, underutilised framework.

As I concluded (Cole, 2016, p. 44):

My “gendered political ecology analysis highlighted how global economic interests are impacting by local level lived emotional and material realities. We are reminded that the hegemony of the dominant capitalist discourse of economic growth stands in sharp contrast to women’s experiences of hardship and struggles for environmental justice. Minorities by gender, race, class and ethnicity are already unfairly disadvantaged in the face global political economy as well as increasingly those hardest hit by climate change. An alternative discourse to the neoliberal growth of tourism is required if justice for women who so readily shared their stories with me and the millions of others in coastal destination communities around the world who will increasingly suffer from competition over their water resources”.

A critical feminist addition to political economy is the concept of intersectionality that explores how categories of identities such as gender, race, ethnicity, ability, age, sexuality etc. are mutually constructing and interrelated and shape systems of power. Intersectional analysis in tourism studies are still rare. One of my contributions to tourism studies is to combine intersectionality and feminist political ecology to show how some women are more impacted than others. When I went back to Flores, where tourism was expanding rapidly, I saw what I had observed in Bali but in a far more extreme way. I wanted to help the women of Labuan Bajo who I observed continuously struggling for a jerry can of water. By deliberately setting out to ask which women and why, struggled most, I found some keys and supported them to find solutions. On a theoretical level I discovered proximity to a water source is added to competition from tourism, a patriarchal culture, ethnicity and life stage as factors that re-enforce women’s inequality. On a practical level I found that not knowing when the water would flow (which two hours, twice in the week) was the easiest problem to solve. After exposing my findings at a multi-stakeholder meeting, the water board scheduled water flows, reducing burdens for women who had pipes/access to pipes.

In my early explorations of the tourism-water nexus I was Chair of Tourism Concern – an NGO advocating ethical tourism, that worked to hold industry to account for its impacts on local communities and destinations, and to promote better tourism based on respect of Human Rights. My work was therefore embedded in a Human Rights based approach. The publication of Ruggie’s “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” (United Nations News Centre, 2011) gave me the platform to think through how the hotel industry needed to/could respond in respect to the Human Right to water. If, according to the UN, all businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, companies need to make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses by ensuring due diligence and understand the likely impact of their operations on public access to water for domestic use.

My research (Cole, 2014) uncovered that the government did not sufficiently fulfil its duty to protect the residents’ right to water.  For the tourists and residents, a lack of knowledge represented a barrier to responsible behaviour, and thus more sensitisation of both groups was needed. Informed tourists could then use their purchasing power to choose a hotel which does not abuse the local community’s rights to water. The research also explored the opportunities and barriers for hotels to respect the Human Right to water. While there has been little take up of this work, it did inspire Yesaya Sandang (Sandang, 2019) to use it as a focus of his PhD and has been taken up by the Indonesian Institute of Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM) who have since worked with government agencies including tourism, at the National and regional levels in Indonesia. Together, Yesaya and I also encourage the Indonesian government and tourism business alike to translate gender-responsive business and human rights principles into policies and instruments (Sandang & Cole, 2020; ELSAM, 2021).

As the international literature review in the world three major languages: English, Spanish, and Chinese (Cole et al., 2020) demonstrates there has been increasing interest in the tourism-water nexus over the past 10 years. However, studies are still limited in scope, both by geographic region and by topic. Most studies have concentrated on securing water for the tourism industry through water management, particularly in hotels. The review identified major gaps: not only the discernible lack of literature that takes a gendered view, but also there have been no studies that have considered tourism and sanitation. Furthermore, despite the increasing importance of climate change, the studies thus far are about how the tourism industry can adapt and mitigate but studies that explore tourism, water and climate change from the communities’ perspective are absent. Like the studies before them, the vast majority of studies in the review took a snap shot in time and space. My work differs because I have returned to my field sites on numerous occasions to follow up.

Longitudinal research and impact

The action approach of my work has relied upon a high level of trust and confidence, sharing of knowledge and experience, and personal involvement. The overwhelming sense of responsibility that I develop from having long, enduring relationships means that respondents needs and desires became important to me. Over time my research has changed from research about the impact on the people to research for the people. There are distinct advantages for the researcher returning to the same field site over a number of years: re-entry is easier, culture shock is minimised, and full engagement occurs only hours after arrival. Furthermore, moving to and from the study site over a period of years allowed for periods of reflection after periods of fieldwork. Maintaining close contact and developing an enduring friendship with my research assistant in Bali has been critical. Working with local research assistants, in partnership, has helped decolonise my work. As friends they can be brutally honest about other ways of understanding and this has been critical to widening my frame of vision. Meanwhile, I have supported them in their careers, and provided them with the foreigner’s capital which is so useful in Indonesia.

As relationships develop so does trust and respect. It results in a depth of data unlikely to result from a once-in-the-field visit or even several visits over a few years. Rich insights and a depth of understanding have developed with increased trust. The longitudinal nature of my work has been critical to creating impact and being able to observe and record that impact. As we discuss in relation to Bali (Cole et al., 2021) by being in the field numerous times over a ten-year period allowed the building and sustaining of productive relationships. These enduring relationships are in themselves a form of subtle impact. Other aspects that we considered critical to impact success are researcher’s purpose, mobilizing media, NGO partnerships and industry engagement.  From the outset my research was academic, but the purpose was to bring about greater water justice. Together with my research assistant, our research has been unapologetically political. We allowed our empathy and concern to shape our work, it provided the passion and purpose necessary to be agents of transformation.  However, we couldn’t have done it alone. As explained earlier I started my research whilst chair of an NGO. In the field I was drawn to working with local NGOs, but it took time to develop the necessary trust. The research provided the evidence base and together with the NGOs, the forums for debate, as well as hooks to get media buy in, and created public debate. Part of our work was bringing NGOs together and getting them to work collaboratively. For tourism research to be impactful, industry engagement is necessary. We provided learning opportunities for industry, engaging them as partners to create a mutual dialogue of learning, and creating links between them to make changes on the ground.

Of course, we haven’t changed the dire environmental situation in Bali. The rapid and continued expansion of the tourism industry has resulted in over-development. Larger hotels are reducing their water use per room, but their overall water use is still increasing. Smaller hotels facing over-supply and stiff competition are both unaware and unable to make changes. Meanwhile the post reformation governance system in Bali is not conducive to resource management or conservation. However, we have raised awareness, changed the discourse and supported those that know the business as usual model is broken and that a longer-term sustainable development agenda is necessary.

Future directions

During my work in Labuan Bajo, Flores I sensed that women were subject to great gender-based violence when water was scarce. They were unable to fulfil their gendered household obligations, and this was a spark for violence. The additional work of walking further, queuing for longer, waiting while catching drips for longer meant they were unavailable for child care and indeed paid work. These additional stresses strained interpersonal relationships to breaking point. My present research is exploring this interconnection.

With what is known about the intersectionality of experiences of women in destinations an under-investigated area is the additional unpaid care work that falls on women when they compete for water supplies with the tourism industry. No studies have so far been conducted to explore the labour/additional labour and its consequences. Several of us have pointed out that additional physical and emotional labour is a consequence of competing with the tourism industry for water, but this has not been subjected to detailed analysis.

As competition for water increases it is increasingly privatised. This trend will continue with climate change and especially in coastal tourism destinations as sea-levels rise and salt water intrudes. We already know privatisation of water creates deeper gender and other inequalities and thus, given the central importance of water to the tourism industry and to women’s daily lives, this is an area where research into the solutions is urgently needed.

My research in Bali remains ongoing. It will be interesting to see the impacts of the pandemic. Will a change, to a more sustainable future emerge, or will the power of foreign investment mean a rapid return to business as was usual?

Written by Stroma Cole, University of Westminster, UK


Cole, S. , Wardana, A., & Dharmiasih, W. (2021). Making an impact on Bali’s water crisis: Research to mobilize NGOs, the tourism industry and policy makers. Annals of Tourism Research, 87,  103119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2020.103119

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Cole, S. (2008). Tourism, Culture and Development: Hopes, Dreams and Realities in Eastern Indonesia. Clevedon: Channel View Publications. ISBN 1-84541-069-6 (pbk) ISBN 1-84541-070-X (hbk) ISBN 1-84541-071-8  (e-book)

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Sandang, Y., & Cole, S. (2020). ‘Bisnis Pariwisata, Hak Asasi Manusia dan Kesetaraan Gender di Indonesia: Peluang dan Tantangan’, in K. M. Guzaimi, W. Wagiman, & V. R. Yudhani (Eds.) Perspektif Gender dan Hak Anak Dalam Bisnis Dan Hak Asasi Manusia: Perempuan Dan Anak Di Bawah Kuasa Korporasi di Indonesia. 1st edn. Jakarta: Lembaga Studi dan Advokasi Masyarakat (ELSAM), 257-296.

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UN News Centre (2011). UN Human Rights Council endorses principles to ensure businesses respect human rights. Retrieved from: https://news.un.org/en/story/2011/06/378662


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Women’s voices in tourism research Copyright © 2021 by The University of Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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