An invitation to slow down and connect
In the last four months I have moved from California back to Prince Edward Island; lived in four different houses; driven four different cars; housesat; dogsat; babysat, and started my own business doing social media work for island-based businesses. It has been a whirlwind, and yet moving from California (read: land of sun, warmth, and endless opportunity) back to Prince Edward Island (read: remote, zub-zero temperatures island in the north Atlantic) is the best decision I have made since I moved to Prince Edward Island the first time in 2004 to do my Master’s degree in Island Studies.
Many people have questioned my decision to move back to PEI this winter and start a business doing social media for island businesses — islanders and mainlanders alike. I have always believed that you have to follow your heart and passion, and my passion has always been deeply rooted on island soil. People ask me all the time what leads a person to pursue a Master’s degree in Island Studies. I have no idea what inspired my colleagues, but my interest in islands began with my Sicilian ancestors–my great-grandparents, to be specific. When they were in their early twenties they boarded a boat for the United States and never looked back. That might have been the end of my family’s island connections had my parents not become Baha’is in 1977 and then moved to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus when I was six to serve the Baha’i community there. My family was in Cyprus for 16 years, during which time my love for islands, island people, cultures, languages, agriculture, music, poetry, literature, and everything else that makes islands such incredible places grew and grew. By the time I completed high school islands were not only inspiration for my visual art and poetry–they were also the focus of my concern. Over the years islands have attracted a great deal of tourism which has led to a massive amount of unplanned, not terribly well thought out development. The burden on islands’ limited water and land resources has been tremendous. It did not escape my attention that while most of us island residents only had access to water three days a week, the hotels had running water 24/7. It also did not escape my attention that the wild landscapes of my childhood that so inspired me were quickly disappearing — being replaced by high rise apartment blocks and parking lots, massive coastal hotels and wider roads.
Over the years I have heard many different perspectives on what is happening to our islands around the world. I agree that change is inevitable, and indeed some of it is necessary and even beneficial. But I hold that much of the change happening on islands is not based on the values and interest of islanders but rather on short-term financial gain of investors — many of whom do not live on islands or have island-roots at all.
Islands are very special places. Islanders know this, and visitors know this, which is why they flock in the thousands to islands for their holidays every year. What I think is often forgotten however by Islanders is that what makes islands so attractive to those from away is their distinctive characteristics–details that cannot be found elsewhere. Details like closely knit communities; fresh, locally grown food and distinctive culinary dishes; uniquely wild and beautiful landscapes; rural farming and fishing villages; stunning coastlines; a slower pace of life; local music and culture; clean air and water….I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture. When it comes down to it, many of the values that islanders are proud of are the very same values that attract visitors and much-needed income through the tourism industry.
When it comes to business, islands are often considered at a disadvantage because of their small size and remoteness and the high cost of transportation to get products to and from the island. In reality however, just as islands’ distinctive characteristics are a magnet for tourism, their geography can be a market advantage: the sea/ocean is actually often more of a bridge than a barrier; small size means a greater degree of flexibility and the ability to more quickly adapt to change, and the tightly knit communities that enable island societies to thrive are ideal for supporting new businesses and marketing through natural channels.
Island businesses have a tremendous opportunity to compete in the world market not by replicating the business models that their mainland counterparts are pursuing, but by creatively and confidently using their unique geography, cultures and natural resources to distinguish themselves and attract clients and customers that value their uniqueness. There are many resources available to island businesses to promote themselves and market their products in the international marketplace. Social media is only one of these, but it is a tool that seems to have been designed with islands in mind. It is based on a grapevine model. It highlights eye-catching images and stories–both of which islands have a wealth of. It depends on sharing and support. And it thrives on word of mouth.
I firmly believe that island businesses need to recognize and use their island location as a marketing advantage to promote their products and services. I have a strong background in island studies, and the social media expertise to help make this happen. I am already working with three island-based clients, and am very excited to have the opportunity help many more island businesses achieve their business goals! Islands can and should be leaders in the business world. Leaders of financial success that is built on rather than undermining island values. Because success should support and highlight what makes islands special.