Travel and tourism are worth over nine percent of global GDP and support over 100 million jobs—one of the world’s largest industries. Coastal tourism is one of the largest components of this industry. Coastal ecosystems generate clean, calm water, pristine beaches, superlative seafood and stunning vistas. Many visitors come for nature-based tourism, such as fishing, snorkeling on coral reefs, or whale-watching. Others come to enjoy the less-direct benefits of swimming in calm waters, or lying on white sandy beaches. By accurately differentiating and assessing the value of these benefits it will be far easier to encourage this industry to safeguard its own future, alongside building increased levels of protection for nature.
Tourists choose their destinations for many different reasons—from wanting a change of climate and the solace of palm-lined coasts to culinary interest, culture, history and nature-based activities. So, the “dependency” on nature varies between tourists. Ecosystems, however, form the land and seascape that many of them, consciously or unconsciously, have come to enjoy.
Nature-dependent tourism includes all tourism that depends on natural ecosystems to provide key benefits. Much of this dependency is overlooked, or taken for granted. Thousands of popular tropical beaches are dependent on nearby coral reefs that provide sand, turquoise waters and break the incoming waves, creating calm clear waters. Elsewhere, water quality is widely enhanced by filtering and microbial cleansing linked to saltmarshes, mangroves or oyster reefs. Even the rich seafood enjoyed by millions of travelers depends on the health of nearby ecosystems.
The benefits from nature-based tourism, which are more reliant on healthy ecosystems, are better understood. Here activities include wildlife watching, boating in natural habitats, fishing and scuba-diving. One study estimated that some 121 million people worldwide took part in at least some of these activities (not including boating) back in 2003, a number that will have grown considerably by now. A good example of nature-based tourism is recreational fishing. It is heavily dependent on the presence of healthy ecosystems. If managed well, such fishing can be sustainable, while also generating much greater benefits to local communities than commercial fishing.
Tourism isn’t always a good thing – its impacts on nature can be considerable. Hotel development, marinas and cruise ports have destroyed coastal habitats. Incomplete sewage treatment pollutes coastal waters. Travel itself is a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions. Even nature-based tourism can be damaging. Overfishing leads to poorer fishing for future visitors. Harassment of marine mammals or turtles can affect their behavior, reducing their feeding or breeding success. Anchor damage can destroy corals carve up seagrass beds.
It is against this background that the concept of sustainable tourism becomes critical. While tourism can cause harm, it doesn’t need to. Where tourism can be made sustainable it can enhance visitor experiences and generate long-term security for local populations. Furthermore, tourists are often highly supportive of additional charges such as park entrance fees when these are clearly going to support conservation. That way, tourism becomes a part of the solution, not an additional threat.
Mapping nature-dependent tourism presents novel challenges. Value is not solely driven by ecology, but by a complex interaction of history, culture, infrastructure, politics and economics. The development of predictive models is therefore challenging, but at the same time, vast amounts of data—from government statistics to hotel and airline data—are available to support the development of actual maps of use and value. Mapping Ocean Wealth has been able to work with others on novel approaches to draw information from social media and crowd-sourced databases to provide indicators of tourist activities. We have used a variety of these to develop unique approaches to map nature-dependent tourism at global scales.
CORAL REEFS Atlas of Ocean Wealth http://maps.oceanwealth.org/
Coral reefs are the poster child of nature-based tourism. Over 350 million people annually travel to the coral reef coasts of the world. Many come specifically to visit the reefs themselves, to swim over shimmering gardens of coral amongst hordes of fish, but many more are unknowing beneficiaries of the reefs as producers of sand, coastal protection, food and remarkable vistas. These travelers support whole industries—hotels, shops, tours, airlines and supply chains that to cater to their every need, from dive equipment to food.