Small island states: building a sustainable future through air transport

Economic Value to the economy

Leaders from many small island developing states are gathering in Apia, the capital of Samoa today for the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States. In the Outreach publication that runs alongside the conference, ATAG's Executive Director Michael Gill wrote about the role aviation is playing in sustainable development across all small island states:

Aviation connects the world. Over 58 million jobs and $2.2 trillion in global GDP are supported by modern air transport. We fly nearly 50,000 routes and will carry over 3 billion passengers this year. But whilst aviation helps to bridge cultures and support business, trade and tourism, in some places it plays a much more fundamental and important role – connectivity.

The Air Transport Action Group recently launched a report looking at the role aviation plays in the world’s economy. It also shows that air transport supports 1.7 million jobs and $37 billion in GDP in small island states around the world. Around 151,000 people are employed within the industry itself at airports, airlines and air traffic management organisations and the rest are within the supply chain and in tourism supported by aviation.

Tourism is a vital source of foreign revenue for islands – one that can be more sustainable than other sources of income. In February, for example, Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau announced that all commercial fishing around the islands would be banned in order to create a marine sanctuary, which will enable Palau to promote snorkelling, scuba diving and ecotourism as an alternative way to grow its economy. The president, a former fisherman, explained that a live shark was worth $1.9 million as a tourist attraction while a dead one was worth just a few hundred dollars.

With this growth in sustainable tourism opportunities also comes a growth in passengers and the jobs that they support. Over the next 20 years, air traffic is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 5.4% across small island states. The number of jobs supported by aviation and tourism will grow to 2.9 million by 2032, a 76% increase from 2012. Meanwhile, the contribution to GDP is forecast to grow to $83 billion by 2032, a growth of 123%.

Each connection for tourism purposes also builds social and business connectivity for local residents and traders. It also means local aviation partners can help build quality long-term jobs for residents. One example of this is Nadi International Airport, which handles 98% of all international visitors to Fiji. But the airport operator does more than manage this vital gateway: it provides a base for developing skills to the local population across a wide range of aviation-related activities.

Airports Fiji Limited (AFL) employs 465 personnel across its 15 airports. Its growing workforce has a range of skill sets from operational and technical support to commercial management and administration. The AFL Aviation Academy offers training programmes to meet local and regional airport market needs in areas such as air traffic management, aviation security, fire-fighting and rescue services.

Domestic airports play a crucial role in the development of Fiji’s regional economies, especially in the transport of tourists between the islands. Tourism by air accounts for around 25% of Fiji’s total GDP, worth $770 million in 2009. Aviation supports a total of 66,000 jobs in the islands, out of a total workforce of around 350,000.

But how can the forecast growth be reconciled with the other aspect of sustainable development – environmental improvements and specifically climate change? Aviation currently emits around 2% of global CO2 emissions and, as an industry, we have been proactive in working together to reduce emissions. In 2008, industry leaders signed an agreement in Geneva to stablise aviation CO2 emissions from 2020 and halve them by 2050. These are ambitious targets and more information on how we will meet them is available on, but it is worth giving an example from a small island state on how one part of the industry is working to help reduce emissions and build a long-term economic asset.

Next month, Rarotonga Airport in the Cook Islands is due to turn on its $3.3 million solar-array power station. The 3,800 panels covering just over 10,000 square meters will generate nearly a megawatt of power, which will provide about 6% of Rarotonga city’s annual electricity generation needs. Although airports have been using solar power for years around the airfield, this is one of the growing number of projects where airport solar power is being used to help meet energy requirements in the local community. Generating jobs and renewable energy… now that is truly sustainable!