Marine Affairs Ph.D. Student Kaytee Canfield Eyes Tourism Injustice Across the Country

When most people look at Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles, they see a beautiful getaway from the mainland’s bustling city life. However, when Kaytee Canfield looks at the popular tourist destination, she sees a history of injustice faced by many island residents whose lives are vastly different from those of tourists.

It is one of the reasons she decided to pursue a Ph.D in Marine Affairs from the University of Rhode Island College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS). “I realized I wanted to help people and the environment in a more direct way and thought the social sciences were the best way to do that”, says Canfield.

A second-generation Californian, Catalina Island has always been at the forefront of Canfield’s mind as she pursued bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Southern California in Environmental Studies. Her research focused on resource partitioning among mammals on the island, a scientific term that describes the division of limited resources by species to help avoid competition within an ecosystem. Although she initially focused on the ecology of the island, Canfield was left wondering “What about the people?”

Canfield’s research in CELS calls attention to the fact that although islands like Catalina Island seem enticing and luxurious to tourists, many of the people who call these places home are frequently marginalized. Much like the rest of California, the 4,000-year round residents of Catalina struggle with available water resources. Many times, those water resources are diverted to the island’s tourist activities, according to Canfield, leaving little for the locals who work at these establishments.

Using the connections she developed on the island through her bachelor’s and master’s experiences, she conducted interviews and surveys with community members, ensuring that the questions she was asking were the ones the community was interested in having answered. She also traveled back in time through archival documents to get a fuller perspective of how living on the island has transformed over the past century. “For me, it is important to center on the lived experiences of these residents”, says Canfield. “I want to ensure that I am telling stories a way that helps reiterate the stories they are trying to have heard.”

Canfield says research on the negative impacts of tourism on island residents typically focuses on countries that are generally viewed as “underprivileged,” geographic locations Canfield describes as the “Global South.” The term describes the historical geographical divide between developing countries in places like Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the Global South, and wealthier nations in Europe, Oceania, and North America, the Global North. “People don’t think of Global North destinations as places where the type of economic disparities seen on Catalina Island occur,” says Canfield. She wanted to explore how and why marginalization typically found in less developed countries could happen in a destination like Catalina.

That’s what attracted her to the University of Rhode Island. It is the only university in the country with a Ph.D program in Marine Affairs. “I didn’t want to feel pigeonholed into a certain disciplinary approach. The interdisciplinary nature of the Marine Affairs program, combined with its coastal and marine focus just made sense to me”, says Canfield. “There is never just one way to interpret something in the social sciences, which is the way I think people actually live their lives and how the world actually works.”

Canfield’s research found that the social justice aspect of tourism development has global implications.  She says many “paradise” destinations in different parts of the world experience environmental and social injustices similar to Catalina Island. “Tourists get to leave at the end of their trip, those who work in the hotels or guide your tours do not”, says Canfield about the visibility of these issues. “It’s helpful for tourists to get a better understanding of the lives of those who live and work where you vacation.”