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Expert Essay
Planning: Innovation in Sustainable Ocean Planning to Incentivize a Shift to Sustainable Coastal and Marine Tourism

How have planning instruments and governance mechanisms been a catalyst for change in the coastal and marine tourist sector? What are examples of innovation that could be replicated or scaled?

Amy Trice
Amy Trice
Director, Ocean Planning Ocean Conservancy

The complexity of ocean governance

Sustainable coastal and marine tourism, the non-consumptive use of natural and cultural resources and systems, provides an opportunity to protect and conserve biodiversity and culture while supporting local and Indigenous economies[1]. This approach offers a tool to governments at all scales to avoid the binary choice of protect or exploit to support economies. The challenge for any government is to balance tourism effectively ensuring that natural and cultural systems are protected not simply for monetary gain but for the existential, subsistence or cultural values they provide.

The overarching challenge to advancing sustainable tourism in the context of integrated ocean management is that ocean governance is complex, multi-scale and fragmented. Exclusive economic zones are subject to national laws and then further subdivided within each nation by management agencies and the laws governing those agencies. Coastal areas may be further subject to regional, state or local authorities and their various agencies and departments. These divisions create challenges for holistic management to support communities, economies and healthy ecosystems. For communities, regions or nations considering sustainable coastal and marine tourism, a comprehensive approach is critical to balance the needs and values of the people as well as other existing uses and ecosystem needs to ensure that tourism does not lead to overexploitation. With ever-increasing competition for ocean and coastal space coupled with new and anticipated challenges related to climate change, an integrated approach is needed more than ever. Planning for sustainable coastal and marine tourism must consider these ocean governance issues, competing ocean uses, overexploitation risks, and the challenges of climate change to limit impacts to communities, cultures and ecosystems while simultaneously creating appropriate space for tourism and balancing its needs.Ideally, a clear legal structure outlining the values (ecological, cultural, equity, economic) for a visitor industry, adopted as part of broader, new legislation for integrated ocean management, can provide direction for defining and advancing goals and objectives. Yet, as demonstrated in the United States at both the state and federal levels, new legislation is often difficult to adopt and implement, so near-term alternatives include interpreting existing law[2] to take an integrated management approach, adding provisions to existing laws, and issuing administrative orders.

Advancing the societal goal of sustainable coastal and marine tourism

If one of the values defined by a society and government initiating integrated ocean management is to incentivise sustainable coastal and marine tourism, outlining goals and objectives to achieve this value is the first step[3]. In concert with outlining goals and objectives, initial actions relevant to sustainable tourism management include advancing collection and dissemination of tourism data and information; improving coordination of the relevant management entities among national-level agencies and at other levels of government, including international, national, regional, state, Tribal, Indigenous or local governments; engaging stakeholders, communities, Indigenous peoples and the public; defining a working definition of sustainable tourism; and evaluating potential ocean use conflicts that may impact tourism. Sustainable tourism can then be defined, and policies adopted, through themes such as advancing recreation, access, equity, use, sustainability and conservation. Defining relevant policies that are driven by community values through meaningful engagement and ecosystem needs will create a planning and governance scenario where communities are invested and sustainability is advanced.

Evidence available from science, Traditional and Indigenous knowledge, and local knowledge, and sectors of human activity will inform the goals and objectives. Developing an understanding and baseline of available knowledge is imperative. This understanding also includes analysing current and future trends for coastal and marine tourism, which will vary given the country, location, level of baseline knowledge and institutional structures. Policies must build in flexibility and adaptability as the availability of knowledge changes. Engaging communities, Indigenous peoples, ocean users and the public throughout analysis of the current state of knowledge is key to a successful planning process, as those groups will see their knowledge and human activity information reflected in the governance framework. This engagement and the associated support for the framework, in turn, reinforce political will and institutional leadership.

The United States has yet to fully develop a national, integrated ocean management plan, although the country joining the Ocean Panel in 2021 brought a commitment to develop such a plan by 2026. Two completed regional ocean plans already exist in the United States, however, as well as many innovative approaches and solutions that can be scaled at the local, state or regional levels. Some examples are already incorporated into state and regional ocean plans. The challenge for the United States in developing an integrated ocean management plan will be to scale these solutions appropriately to define sustainable ocean and coastal tourism nationally.

Examples of innovative governance and planning solutions that can be scaled to advance sustainable tourism

  • Using surveys to engage local communities in planning: Recreational boating is a popular activity in the Northeast United States[4]. When the Northeast Ocean Plan was initiated in 2012, minimal information existed on the spatial activity of this important ocean use. This significant data gap made it challenging to assess potential conflicts or synergies with other uses, such as offshore wind development. A survey of recreational boaters in the Northeast, initiated in partnership with representatives of the boating industry, states and the U.S. Coast Guard, accessed data on activity and developed maps of popular recreational boating locations that can be viewed on the Northeast Ocean Data Portal. Boaters provided valuable information about the spatial extent and economic value of recreational boating as well as boaters’ perspectives on conflicts or synergies with other uses. Similar surveys were conducted for other recreational activities such as surfing, kayaking, swimming, snorkelling, wildlife viewing and diving. The Northeast Ocean Plan outlines recreational activities in the region based on these surveys and links specific policies that are important for coastal managers to consider. For example, beach and dune erosion, both a cause and effect of coastal flooding, is a major regional issue. A full assessment of coastal resilience solutions could then be considered as mangers work to balance the enhanced storm protection, economic, recreational and tourism benefits provided by a widened beach weighing against the environmental and other potential effects and costs of removing, transporting and placing sand onshore[5].

Key innovation: Recreational user surveys offer a low-cost model for analysing recreational activities as policies for sustainable marine and coastal tourism are defined, while simultaneously offering the added benefit of engaging those communities in the planning process.

  • Facilitating equitable coastal access: Sustainable recreation and tourism should include the public right to access natural resources where it does not conflict with Tribal or Indigenous rights and uses. Activities such as subsistence fishing and food access should also be considered, with specific attention to less-documented uses such as pier fishing in urban areas. The state of California, for example, does not require a license to fish from public piers[6]. In the state of Rhode Island, the right to collect seaweed isguaranteed by the original 1843 state constitution. However, despite these types of rights, public access to beaches is often limited and discouraged by waterfront homeowners. In Rhode Island, the state agency with jurisdiction over activities in coastal areas, the Coastal Resources Management Council, facilitates public access to the shoreline by publishing a guide to parks, wildlife refuges, beaches, fishing sites, boat ramps, pathways and views along the coast. The guide includes useful information, including where to locate access, the availability of parking and accessibility for disabled people. In addition, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority offers buses to a number of popular beaches. An express service called the ‘Beach Bus’ operates during the summer months. The availability of public transportation is key to ensuring beach access is equitable to all communities.

Key innovation: Government can facilitate equitable public access to beaches and fishing areas by engaging communities directly, designating access sites, making the information available, providing public transportation and making parking affordable for local residents. 

  • Planning for climate resilience to protect historic sites and cultural traditions: The Gullah/Geechee people have traditionally resided in the coastal areas and the Sea Islands of the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida[7]. In 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided technical assistance to St. Helena Island in the Gullah/Geechee Nation through the EPA’s Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities program[8].Landscape architects created renderings for the St. Helena Island Gullah/Geechee Living Landscape. These renderings provide visual examples of a network of green infrastructure projects that the Gullah/Geechee community of Saint Helena Island and Beaufort County, South Carolina, intend to develop. The projects will buffer storm surge and mitigate impacts of sea level rise while also protecting local food production, historic sites and cultural traditions. The effort will work with community members on asset mapping of green infrastructure projects throughout the island, solidifying action plans and connecting funding sources to build climate resilience into the community and the barrier island. The Gullah/Geechee Living Landscape will highlight the connections between sites, set clear resilience goals for each location and work with the county and state to ensure culturally appropriate climate adaptation solutions are reflected in plans and policies.

Key innovation: Governments can engage directly with and fund traditional and Indigenous communities to co-develop culturally appropriate resilience to climate change. Climate resilience planning can also be used as a high-level coordinating policy to engage communities further as they define their acceptance, interest and values for sustainable tourism.

  • Connecting cultural and maritime heritage in marine and coastal protection: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration manages a network of more than 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters. The network includes fifteen marine sanctuaries as well as the Papahānaumokuākea, Rose Atoll, Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, Pacific Remote Islands and Marianas Trench marine national monuments. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary encourages responsible and sustainable tourism through water-based activities that are compatible with ocean protection, including boating, snorkelling, kayaking, recreational fishing and whale watching. Collaborative projects assess and monitor the population of humpback whales, whale distribution and abundance, whale behaviour and potential human impacts. Programs also support stranding responses and citizen science efforts. Humpback whales, called koholā in Hawaiian, are an important part of Native Hawaiians’ history, legends and connection to the sea. The sanctuary’s management decisions consider Hawaiʻi’s cultural and maritime heritage, which is also reflected in the specific management plan and goals for the sanctuary, including a Living Cultural Traditions Action Plan[9]. Management plans, required for any national marine sanctuary[10], are intended to be site-specific documents that summarise existing programs and regulations; articulate visions, goals, objectives and priorities; and ensure public involvement in management processes.

Key innovation: Collaborative research with Indigenous partners and local communities that respects a region’s cultural and maritime history can make information more comprehensive, avoid conflicts, protect important habitats and cultural areas, and support sustainable marine tourism. Marine and coastal protection management plans should reflect direct engagement with Indigenous communities.

  • Defining a Maine water trail on private and public land: Off the coast of Maine in the Northeast, the state owns approximately 1,300 uninhabited coastal islands, some of them only small rocky outcroppings. In the mid-1980s, the state collaborated with the Island Institute, a non-profit organisation, to evaluate the recreational potential of these properties. The public islands they identified as suitable for recreational use became the basis of the original Maine Island Trail, now a 375-mile water trail for paddlers, sailors, motorboaters and conservationists that extends the length of the Maine coast. It connects over 250 wild islands and mainland sites that are open for day use or overnight camping. In some locations, landowners allow access to their properties trusting that Maine Island Trail Association members and other users will be responsible stewards during their visits. The water trail is operated by the association, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of these wild islands, embracing the idea that users of the trail will become island stewards[11]. The Maine Island Trail is built on partnerships with site owners, from private landowners to non-profit organisations and federal, state and local agencies. The Maine Island Trail Association maintains an app and guide to trail locations.

Key innovation: Having a unified approach to sustainable tourism in the form of a water trail that organises access and sets standards for activities can boost activity in the area, enhance awareness, connect partners and motivate protection of a valuable recreational resource.


[1] ‘Coastal and ocean-based tourism is sustainable, resilient, addresses climate change, reduces pollution, supports ecosystem regeneration and biodiversity conservation and invests in local jobs and communities.’ High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel), Transformations for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, https://www.oceanpanel.org/ocean-action/files/transformations-sustainable-ocean-economy-eng.pdf.

[2] See Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) for an example of ways to address fragmentation and respect for varying levels of government. CZMA provides a national benefit and enables individual states to accomplish goals of national interest; https://coast.noaa.gov/czm/act/.

[3] For help defining appropriate goals and objectives, see C. Ehler and F. Douvere. Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach toward Ecosystem-Based Management, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and Man and the Biosphere Programme, IOC Manual and Guides no. 53, ICAM Dossier no. 6 (Paris: UNESCO, 2009).

[4] The recreational boating survey characterised the recreational boating activity of 373,766 marine boaters from Maine to New York. The survey detailed maps of boating routes across the region. Economic analyses revealed that 907,000 boating trips on the ocean generated approximately $3.5 billion and the equivalent of nearly 27,000 year-round jobs in the Northeast in 2012.

[5] See Northeast Ocean Planning, Northeast Ocean Plan, 2016, https://neoceanplanning.org/plan/.

[6] Public piers in the State of California have a special designation in law. Section 1.88 of Title 14, California Code of Regulations, https://wildlife.ca.gov/Fishing/Ocean/Beach-Fishing.

[7] Gullah/Geechee Nation, https://gullahgeecheenation.com.

[8] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities,” https://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/building-blocks-sustainable-communities.

[9] Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Management Plan 2020, https://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/management/management-plan.html.

[10] See National Marine Sanctuaries Act, https://nmssanctuaries.blob.core.windows.net/sanctuaries-prod/media/archive/library/national/nmsa.pdf; and National Marine Sanctuaries, “Management 101,” https://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/management/mgt101.html.

[11] Maine Island Trail Association, https://mita.org/.

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