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Expert Essay
Equity: Ensuring Everyone Can Benefit from Coastal and Marine Tourism

What has been effective in increasing the benefits that flow to local communities, reducing the impacts of coastal and marine tourism on local communities and avoiding widening inequalities?

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles
Freya Higgins-Desbiolles
Visiting Professor Centre for Research and Innovation in Tourism, Taylor’s University (Malaysia); Adjunct Associate Professor Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, University of Waterloo (Canada); Adjunct UniSA Business, University of South Australia (Australia)

Coastal and marine tourism are recognised as important facets of the blue economy for coastal communities and small island developing states. The blue economy refers to the ‘sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem’[1]. The International Coastal and Marine Tourism Society defines coastal and marine tourism as ‘recreational activities which involve travel away from one’s place of residence which has as their host or focus the marine environment and/or the coastal zone’[2]. Activities are varied in their monetisation, impacts and benefits, from exclusive and expensive gated beach resorts and high-end cruising to low-cost, lower-impact nature experiences and citizen-science projects to protect and even restore coastal and marine habitats.

Demands for equity

Blue economy advocacy has been criticised, however, as an attempt to cash in on opportunities to exploit ocean resources, at the cost of ecological health and human well-being[3]. Human communities have been dependent on and deeply attached to these environments, so the equity issues are considerable, with social equity playing a key role.

Social equity here refers to: the recognition and fair treatment of all groups that would benefit from or be impacted by existing or nascent ocean industries; their inclusion in development plans and policies that would affect them, and; the achievement of a more just distribution of benefits and burdens from these industries[4].

A multi-stakeholder approach can help win support for coastal and marine tourism and secure triple bottom-line outcomes (economic, social and ecological)[5]. Stakeholders may include local communities, tourism businesses, tourism associations, fishing interests, governments, Indigenous custodians and non-governmental organisations. Tourism businesses and government authorities often use stakeholder management approaches and corporate social responsibility initiatives to balance competing interests and win social approval for their operations.

Prioritising local communities above other stakeholders in tourism decision-making may be desirable, however, as they have more at stake[6]. Tourism promotion and development often entail complex assertions of power to access, control and benefit from the resources held in communities around the globe[7], including coastal and marine resources. Redefining tourism through a focus on the local community, centring the community rather than the tourism industry in coastal management and coastal tourism development processes, may counter these power imbalances. This would occur through meaningful and effective participatory approaches that prioritise support for community-based tourism, integrated local supply chains for tourism and well-remunerated local workers. In contrast, if communities are managed as only one stakeholder among many, their rights, interests and benefits may be ill-served.  In such cases, communities may turn to protests and activism.

This can be seen in the case of the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships in the U.S. state of Florida. The committee has acted on behalf of the local community to shape tourism governance of the cruise industry in Key West[8]. In November 2020, the group’s work led to a referendum in which more than 60 percent of voters approved local ordinances preventing visits by big cruises ships and instead positioning the Port of Key West as a small-ship destination, for both social and environmental reasons. Opponents are attempting to overturn these measures through state legislation and other means, to which the community is responding with lobbying, research and protests. Similarly, in Venice the Comitato No Grandi Navi opposes the cruise industry’s access to the city through the Venetian lagoon ‘for reasons of safety, public health and defense of the lagoon ecosystem’[9].

In seeking greater equity, it is important to understand intersectionality, the concept that discrimination for many people takes multiple and intersecting structural forms[10]. Policy and management of coastal and marine resources should identify these forms of oppression and work to counteract or mitigate them. Structural discriminatory practices might be based, for example, on race, ethnicity, class, caste, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability and age. These influence how populations may access, enjoy and benefit from coastal and marine resources, as well as the associated tourism and leisure activities. Intersectionally informed policies will pay particular attention to the rights and interests of populations impacted by such multiple and compounding oppressions. For instance, accessibility programmes and infrastructures to support women, minorities, senior citizens, the disabled, and the unemployed (and those who fall in multiple such categories)[11] to enjoy coastal holidays and beach resorts, as seen in some social tourism initiatives at the cutting edge of issues of intersectionality and equity. For example, beach matting trials in Australia show the benefits of accessible approaches to coastal and marine sites. Of the trials in Queensland, the mayor of Moreton Bay Region stated, ‘We saw people travel far and wide to use the beach matting, from wheelchair users to seniors with limited mobility and local families using prams’[12]. One of Brazil’s leading social tourism initiatives is the Serviço Social do Comércio (SESC), whose mission is to ‘democratize access to tourism’. For example, an SESC resort in Bertioga, on the coast of São Paulo state, caters to disadvantaged populations and workers and offers nature excursions[13]. Accessible and social tourism advocates champion the idea of ‘tourism for all’ and work to bring down barriers to people’s enjoyment of sites such as beaches and marine environments. Without such initiatives, coastal and marine tourism experiences might remain inaccessible and result in inequities for whole sectors of society. Understanding of intersectionality and equity needs to be embedded in community consultation processes, in the industry’s recruitment and employment practices, in support programmes for micro and small to medium enterprises, in loans and grant schemes, as well as in government programmes.

To ensure that equity and inclusion are central in marine tourism policies, in-depth insights of community power dynamics and marginalisation processes are essential. This is not easily accomplished by ‘fly in, fly out’ consultants; insights must come from the community. Recent findings suggest that citizen social science can be a powerful way to both include marginalised communities and design new evidence-based policies supported by citizen participation[14]. One example is the collaboration that resulted in a responsible visitor’s code for the coastal tourism town of Byron Bay, Australia. The Byron Bay Pledge emerged from a citizen social science approach driven by young members of Byron Youth Theatre, who, ‘following their involvement in the “Our Home Holiday Town” research project with the Centre for Children and Young People at Southern Cross University, . . . consulted with local ecotourism operator Vision Walks, local Arakwal woman Delta Kay and other youth groups in the area including those at the Byron Youth Service’[15]. Citizen social science ‘foster[s] citizens’ engagement in the knowledge production that deals with their specific social lifeworlds’[16] and can lead to efforts to protect coastal communities and ecologies from overtourism.

Decolonising as a pathway to equity with justice

Equity approaches help ensure that access to remediation for damages caused by blue economy developments is evenly and fairly distributed. However, justice approaches are needed to resolve the structural causes of inequities and ensure that engagement with coastal and marine ecologies is fair, just and sustainable in the long-term.

In particular, it is essential to respect the intrinsic relationship between Indigenous Peoples and their ocean environments. The relationship with ‘Sea Country’ features in many Aboriginal Australian tourism enterprises and results in unique and highly valued tourism experiences, such as the award-winning Lirrwi Tourism in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory[17], and Walkabout Cultural Adventures on Kuku Yalanji Country, Queensland[18]. The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples offers guidance on respecting and integrating Indigenous rights in coastal and marine tourism policies (see especially Articles 11 and 25)[19]. Decolonisation takes these efforts a step further and involves the repatriation of Indigenous lands, waters and lifeways. Examples include ‘canoe culture’ guidance in Hawai’i and the surfing programmes of Native Like Water in San Diego.

Canoe culture in Hawai’i is derived from the first law of the nation of Hawai’i: ‘canoe culture has guided decolonial visions’ as well as a 1973 water rights decision: ‘The right of the people to have the waters protected for their use demands adequate provision for traditional and customary Hawaiian rights, wildlife, maintenance of ecological balance and scenic beauty, and the preservation and enhancement of the waters’[20]. Such Indigenous law ways can act as decolonial guides for coastal and marine tourism policy and practices.

As Marc Chavez of Native Like Water explains, surfing started as an Indigenous activity in many places around the world, including Hawai’i, the Pacific coast of North America and Peru. In the area that became San Diego, Spanish colonisers displaced Native tribes from the coast to the desert, weakening their connection to the coastal environment. More recently, non-Indigenous people have appropriated surfing and commercialised it as an ‘industry’. Native Like Water is a programme for Native American youth ‘to reaffirm and re-establish our relationship with the ocean, with the waterways and the relationship with ourselves’[21]. This form of Indigenous tourism reconnects Indigenous youth to saltwater ecologies and works to revive their connections and custodianship[22].

Recommendations for ensuring more equitable coastal and marine tourism:

  • Develop policies and build programmes that ensure that the local community benefits from coastal and marine tourism opportunities. This includes meaningful consultation to ensure that coastal development and marine protection policies do not compromise communities’ enjoyment of their coasts but instead enhance community recreation and leisure. Support for community-owned businesses through grants and funding, particularly of micro and small enterprises, is needed to ensure that communities receive economic benefits from coastal tourism. Inclusive employment strategies are essential to ensure local community members’ access to job opportunities associated with coastal tourism developments.
  • Develop participatory approaches for equity in communities that are derived from best practice global guidelines but also customised to local knowledges and lifeways. Recent thinking on collaborative design (or co-design) builds relationships with communities, fosters intentions of stewardship and can be shaped to ensure that potentially marginalised groups are included in these dialogues[23].
  • Give careful attention to gender in tourism, using the UN World Tourism Organization’s Gender Mainstreaming Guidelines for the Public Sector in Tourism and Gender-Inclusive Strategy for Tourism Businesses[24].
  • Support citizen and community science and social science programmes to tap and also inform community knowledges and care for their local coastal and marine environments and thereby empower them for participatory approaches.
  • Respect and support Indigenous Peoples’ rights and responsibilities to protect coastal and marine environments. Governing authorities and businesses need to follow best practices in empowering Indigenous custodians of coastal and marine environments. Co-governance and Indigenous governance are emerging as successful approaches to marine ecosystem management[25]. Indigenous tourism operators should also be prioritised for business support to ensure that their contributions to coastal tourism interpretation are part of a vibrant, educative and sustainable marine tourism industry.
  • Develop programmes, supports and infrastructure for accessible and social tourism[26]. This is a pillar of equity and all stakeholders should commit themselves to achieving ‘tourism for all’.

Finally, reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2022 suggest it is essential to prepare for future crises. Climate change effects on coastal environments threaten these ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. When we enact policies to prevent or remediate climate change, we need to consider just and equitable policy choices for the communities that call these places home.


[1] World Bank, “What Is the Blue Economy?,” infographic, June 6, 2017, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/infographic/2017/06/06/blue-economy.

[2] M.B. Orams and M. Lück, “Coastal and Marine Tourism,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Tourism, edited by A.A. Lew, C.M. Hall and A.M. Williams, 479–89 (Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2014), https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118474648; quotation 488.

[3] N.J. Bennett, A.M. Cisneros-Montemayor, J. Blythe et al., “Towards a Sustainable and Equitable Blue Economy,” Nature Sustainability 2 (2019): 991–93, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0404-1.

[4] A.M. Cisneros-Montemayor, M. Moreno-Báez, M. Voyer, E.H. Allison, W.W.L. Cheung, M. Hessing-Lewis, M.A. Oyinlola et al., “Social Equity and Benefits as the Nexus of a Transformative Blue Economy: A Sectoral Review of Implications,” Marine Policy 109 (2019): 103702, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103702; quotation 2.

[5] D. Dimitrovski, A. Lemmetyinen, L. Nieminen and T. Pohjola, “Understanding Coastal and Marine Tourism Sustainability: A Multi-stakeholder Analysis,” Journal of Destination Marketing and Management 19 (2021): 100554, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jdmm.2021.100554.

[6] F. Higgins-Desbiolles, “Socialising Tourism for Social and Ecological Justice after COVID-19,” Tourism Geographies 22, no. 3 (2020): 610–23, doi:10.1080/14616688.2020.1757748.

[7] F. Higgins-Desbiolles and B.C. Bigby, eds., The Local Turn in Tourism: Empowering Communities (Bristol, UK: Channel View, forthcoming).

[8] Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, “Ballot Language,” 2021, https://www.safercleanerships.com/ballot-language.

[9] No Grandi Navi, “What We Ask,” n.d., accessed 18 April 2022, http://www.nograndinavi.it/cosa-chiediamo-2/.

[10] K.W. Crenshaw, “On Intersectionality” (2016), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DW4HLgYPlA.

[11] A. Diekmann and S. McCabe, The Handbook of Social Tourism (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2020).

[12] K. Knight, “Region’s Beach Mats Key to Accessibility Tourism,” Moreton Daily, 24 June 2020, https://www.moretondaily.com.au/news/regions-beach-mats-key-to-accessibility-tourism.

[13] International Social Tourism Organisation, Tourism in Actions: 20 Examples of Social Policies & Programmes around the World, 2017, https://www.isto.international/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/EN_Tourism-in-actions-20-examples-of-social-policies-programmes-around-the-world.pdf; quotation 8–9.

[14] A. Albert, B. Balázs, E. Butkevičienė, K. Mayer and J. Perelló, “Citizen Social Science: New and Established Approaches to Participation in Social Research,” in The Science of Citizen Science, edited by K. Vohland, A. Land-Zastra, L. Ceccaroni, R. Lemmens, J. Perelló, M. Ponti, R. Samson and K. Wagenknecht, 119–38 (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2021), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-58278-4_7; quotation 119.

[15] Byron Way Pledge, “What’s the Byron Way Pledge?,” n.d., accessed 19 April 2022, https://www.byronpledge.com.au/about/.

[16] S. Thomas, D. Scheller and S. Schröder, “Co-creation in Citizen Social Science: The Research Forum as a Methodological Foundation for Communication and Participation,” Humanities Social Science Communications 8, no. 244 (2021), https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-021-00902-x; quotation 1.

[17] Lirrwi Tourism, “About Lirrwi Tourism,” n.d., accessed 18 April 2022, https://www.lirrwitourism.com.au/about-us.

[18] Walkabout Cultural Adventures, “My Country,” n.d., accessed 18 April 2022, https://www.walkaboutadventures.com.au/my-country.html.

[19] United Nations, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html.

[20] S. Ganaden, “Laws of the Canoe,” in Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai’i, edited by H.K. Aikau and V.V. Gonzalez, 373–79 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019); quotation 377.

[21] Sea of Change, “Native Like Water,” n.d., accessed 4 April 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDKlakMubR0.

[22] A. Peters and F. Higgins-Desbiolles, “De-marginalising Tourism Research: Indigenous Australians as Tourists,” Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management 19 (2012): 1–9, http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1839526012000077.

[23] J. Liburd, E. Duedahl and C. Heape, “Co-designing Tourism for Sustainable Development,” Journal of Sustainable Tourism (2020), doi:10.1080/09669582.2020.1839473.

[24] World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Gender Mainstreaming Guidelines for the Public Sector in Tourism (Madrid: UNWTO, 2022), https://www.e-unwto.org/doi/book/10.18111/9789284423248; UNWTO, Gender-Inclusive Strategy for Tourism Businesses (Madrid: UNWTO, 2022), https://www.e-unwto.org/doi/10.18111/9789284423262.

[25] M. Parsons and L. Taylor, “Why Indigenous Knowledge Should Be an Essential Part of How We Govern the World’s Oceans,” The Conversation, 8 June 2021, https://theconversation.com/why-indigenous-knowledge-should-be-an-essential-part-of-how-we-govern-the-worlds-oceans-161649.

[26] See International Social Tourism Organisation, Tourism in Actions. Disability Support Guide, “Disability Accessible Travel and Tourism,” n.d., accessed 19 April 2022, https://www.disabilitysupportguide.com.au/information/article/disability-accessible-travel-and-tourism.

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