Ecotourism is best defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”Banaras Hindu University & Lata Tripathi, K. Tourism to Ecotourism: a Tour. Int. J. Humanit. Soc. Sci. 3, 27–30 (2016).. This new sector is often associated with financial benefits toward regional conservation and culture, and ideally promotes sustainable practices and education.
Marine ecotourism may take the form of whale watching, snorkeling, fishing, or diving. The industry can provide a lot of good: it can fund marine conservation efforts and drum up enthusiasm and appreciation for our oceans. However, without proper oversight, it can come at a cost, degrading ecosystems or placing more stress on the environment with increased human activity. How can this growing industry balance these out, and what can we achieve with sustainable marine ecotourism?
Benefits of Marine Ecotourism
Ecotourism is highly region-specific and depends on the geography and native habitats of a country. For example, the amount of accessible coastline and beaches or the presence of charismatic megafauna can greatly influence a country’s marine ecotourism scene. Whale-watching is a great case of this – a number of whale species frequent feeding grounds off the coasts of Alaska, and whale watching brought in an estimated $86 million in 2019Fisheries, N. New Study Shows Economic Importance of Alaska’s Whale-Watching Industry | NOAA Fisheries. NOAA … Continue reading. The revenue brought in from these activities, when structured correctly, can fund conservation efforts for the local environment.
Alongside the financial benefits, marine ecotourism changes people’s attitudes and behaviors related to the ocean. In the Philippines, the University of Cambridge surveyed locals at 3 sites where tourists could pay to swim with whale sharks. Local employees at smaller businesses reported a profound social change in how they regarded the sharks, citing an increased emotional connection to the animalsZiegler, J. et al. Can ecotourism change community attitudes towards conservation? Oryx 55, 546–555 (2021).. In fact, community-led ecotourism can foster empowerment, the development of small, local businesses, and added physical infrastructure (such as roads, clean water, etc.)Garraway, J. Ecotourism as a Means of Community Development. (2008).. Local perspectives are often missing in a lot of environmental issues, and ecotourism can help provide that.
The Gray Area of Marine Ecotourism
Though ecotourism in marine spaces can provide a variety of benefits, it’s not without risks, and there is a lot of room for improvement. There is a necessary balance that needs to be kept to avoid exploitation of vulnerable species or environments. Tourism is messy, often difficult to govern and regulate – and some practices as a whole are more risky than othersTackle Waste & Pollution. Sustainable Travel International https://sustainabletravel.org/our-work/waste-pollution/..
Some activities, notably ones that allow tourists to get up close to animals can have unwanted consequences when not regulated properly. Shark cage diving, for example, needs careful regulation, as it can carry some risk of injury to the shark or human involved, and also has the potential to affect shark behaviorBruce, B. A review of cage diving impacts on white shark behaviour and recommendations for research and the industry’s management in New Zealand.. Similarly, activities like swimming with dolphins in the ocean, which is popular in many parts of the world, including Oceania and East Africa. Though it is a major draw to tourists, a study conducted on spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) noted an inverse correlation between the presence of tourists and the amount of rest the dolphins were able to get, putting the animals at riskShawky, A. M., Christiansen, F. & Ormond, R. Effects of swim-with-dolphin tourism on the behaviour of spinner dolphins, at Samadai Reef in the Egyptian Red Sea. Aquat. Conserv. Mar. Freshw. … Continue reading. A similar study conducted on bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in New Zealand noted that boats and people who violated tourism regulation (notably things like vessel noise) disturbed the dolphins, causing them to dive for longer periods of timePeters, K., Parra, G., Skuza, P. & Möller, L. First insights into the effects of swim-with-dolphin tourism on the behavior, response, and group structure of southern Australian bottlenose … Continue reading. Other negligent tourist practices (like going into restricted areas and getting too close to dolphins) had a significant impact on the dolphin population. In the Bay Islands, a popular spot for swimming, calf mortality rates rose to 75%, the highest in New Zealand. Tourism also produced changes in adult dolphin behavior, including migration routes and time spent resting and feeding their offspring. Since the study was published, New Zealand has fully banned swimming with dolphins in the Bay IslandsWill. New Zealand introduces protections for bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands. Oceanographic https://oceanographicmagazine.com/news/new-zealand-bottlenose-dolphins/ (2019)..
Another problematic facet of marine ecotourism is “last-chance tourism,” or tourists who travel to experience and witness a place expected to disappear as a result of climate changeHoogendoorn, G. Last Chance Tourism in South Africa. Tourism 69, 73 (2021).. A survey of visitors to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef found that nearly 70% of the travelers were very or extremely motivated to see the reef before it disappearsPiggott-McKellar, A. E. & McNamara, K. E. Last chance tourism and the Great Barrier Reef. J. Sustain. Tour. 25, 397 (2016).. Unfortunately, an abundance of tourists who may touch or take parts of the reef further compromises an already vulnerable ecosystem. Another contradiction lies behind this “last chance” motivation, as long distance air travel to see these places further contributes to our carbon emission crisis. A strong example of this is in polar tourism, where researchers attempted to quantify the carbon footprint of last chance tourism in polar bear viewing in Churchill, Manitoba. The variety of visitors mostly came by plane from different parts of the world. When compared to 2008, the overall carbon footprint of the polar bear viewing in Churchill in 2018 was 10% higher. This corresponds with more total tourists and an increase in travel distances, with more tourists coming from the U.S. and less from CanadaD’Souza, J., Dawson, J. & Groulx, M. Last chance tourism: a decade review of a case study on Churchill, Manitoba’s polar bear viewing industry. J. Sustain. Tour. 31, 14–31 (2023)..
Recreating the Industry
Although marine ecotourism has a number of pros and cons, the idea behind it is noble: the ocean is worth exploring, appreciating, and protecting. A promising new sector of ecotourism that emphasizes this concept is “conservation tourism,” which refers to a combination of ecotourism and volunteer workCousins, J., Evans, J. & Sadler, J. Selling Conservation? Scientific Legitimacy and the Commodification of Conservation Tourism. Ecol. Soc. 14, (2009).. There is a growing public desire to feel personally impactful. and volunteering at conservation initiatives can help people scratch that itch while contributing to legitimate and well-designed projects. Companies such as GVI and Greenforce organize conservation projects that recruit volunteers looking to engage in unique travel experiences. Some examples of this include reforestation, sea turtle conservation (particularly hatchery monitoring), and cetacean surveys.
Many marine tourism destinations are in nations that do not always have the ability to dedicate large parts of their budget for conservation funding. The Nature Conservancy has come up with a creative solution, implemented thus far in the Seychelles and Belize, two countries that have large ecotourism industries. Their “Blue Bond” program is a mechanism to restructure a country’s debt, revising and then redirecting the resulting funds toward the country’s ecotourism (as, in the case of Belize, tourism makes up around 40% of its economy) and ocean conservation effortsBlue Streak. The Nature Conservancy https://www.nature.org/en-us/magazine/magazine-articles/belize-blue-bonds/.. The projected impact of this maneuvering is $180 million in ocean conservation funding.
There is so much potential for progress in marine ecotourism, but it needs to be implemented in a way that is sustainable and supports conservation. Government and community support of ethical ecotourism practices can go a long way, as well the public needs to be educated on how to engage with the environment in a way that is respectful and non-disruptive. Although tourists can cause damage, most people that visit natural spaces leave wanting to do more to protect them and to be able to come back. For those that are simply planning a vacation, Wildlife SOS has created a straightforward guide to being a responsible ecotourist, from choosing a destination to picking a souvenir to bring home. The takeaway for travelers: be mindful and do your research before your trip and enjoy all that the ocean has to offer.
|↑1||Banaras Hindu University & Lata Tripathi, K. Tourism to Ecotourism: a Tour. Int. J. Humanit. Soc. Sci. 3, 27–30 (2016).|
|↑2||Fisheries, N. New Study Shows Economic Importance of Alaska’s Whale-Watching Industry | NOAA Fisheries. NOAA https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/new-study-shows-economic-importance-alaskas-whale-watching-industry (2022).|
|↑3||Ziegler, J. et al. Can ecotourism change community attitudes towards conservation? Oryx 55, 546–555 (2021).|
|↑4||Garraway, J. Ecotourism as a Means of Community Development. (2008).|
|↑5||Tackle Waste & Pollution. Sustainable Travel International https://sustainabletravel.org/our-work/waste-pollution/.|
|↑6||Bruce, B. A review of cage diving impacts on white shark behaviour and recommendations for research and the industry’s management in New Zealand.|
|↑7||Shawky, A. M., Christiansen, F. & Ormond, R. Effects of swim-with-dolphin tourism on the behaviour of spinner dolphins, at Samadai Reef in the Egyptian Red Sea. Aquat. Conserv. Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst. 30, 1373–1384 (2020).|
|↑8||Peters, K., Parra, G., Skuza, P. & Möller, L. First insights into the effects of swim-with-dolphin tourism on the behavior, response, and group structure of southern Australian bottlenose dolphins. Mar. Mammal Sci. 29, DOI: 10.1111/mms.12003 (2012).|
|↑9||Will. New Zealand introduces protections for bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands. Oceanographic https://oceanographicmagazine.com/news/new-zealand-bottlenose-dolphins/ (2019).|
|↑10||Hoogendoorn, G. Last Chance Tourism in South Africa. Tourism 69, 73 (2021).|
|↑11||Piggott-McKellar, A. E. & McNamara, K. E. Last chance tourism and the Great Barrier Reef. J. Sustain. Tour. 25, 397 (2016).|
|↑12||D’Souza, J., Dawson, J. & Groulx, M. Last chance tourism: a decade review of a case study on Churchill, Manitoba’s polar bear viewing industry. J. Sustain. Tour. 31, 14–31 (2023).|
|↑13||Cousins, J., Evans, J. & Sadler, J. Selling Conservation? Scientific Legitimacy and the Commodification of Conservation Tourism. Ecol. Soc. 14, (2009).|
|↑14||Blue Streak. The Nature Conservancy https://www.nature.org/en-us/magazine/magazine-articles/belize-blue-bonds/.|