The natural values underpinning coastal tourism
Coasts and oceans variously provide a backdrop or take centre stage in tourism activities ranging from cruise and beach holidays, to urban vacations in coastal cities, to gastronomic and adventure tourism. In settings with few economic alternatives, this tourism can be a social and economic foundation.
Despite a general awareness of the ocean’s importance—clearly noted in the widespread use of ocean imagery in marketing, or the price premiums for sea views—the role of nature and of biodiversity in generating and maintaining so much of this value remains poorly documented and widely overlooked beyond a relatively narrow niche of focused holidays and excursions.
Wildlife tourism is one such component, and has received considerable attention. This includes diving and snorkelling; the surging value of whale and dolphin watching; and more targeted activities, ranging from birdwatching to kayaking or walking through mangrove forests. Even where such activities are only one component of a vacation, the importance of ‘memorable tourism experiences’ can critically influence visitor satisfaction, the likelihood of return and word-of-mouth recommendations to others. Nature-based tourism is another term that overlaps with wildlife tourism, but slightly widens the scope of interactions with nature, notably by including fishing. Recreational fishing depends on nature, and healthy ecosystems can deliver remarkable price premiums. Of course, fishing can also have negative impacts on nature, but with the right incentives or controls, these can be managed. Fly-fishers visiting remote ‘flats’ will often pay US$1,000–$2,000 per day, and guides, who are often former local fishers, can earn several hundred dollars per day, with very little of the latter leaking to foreign agents or intermediaries. The fish are often released after capture, and harm can be minimal.
What is missing from such calculations, however, is a yet-broader class—nature-dependent tourism. This term encompasses any form of tourism that is directly or indirectly reliant on nature. Restaurants selling local seafood or agencies using nature in marketing and sales are all, to some degree, dependent on nature. A study of coral reef tourism has estimated that over $16 billion per year of tourism expenditure could be linked to the indirect benefits of coral reefs in generating beaches, calm waters, views and seafood. Such dependency may only be partial – the proportional increase in the value of an activity or destination linked to nature. This might come from the presence of fresh local fish on a restaurant menu, or a view over coral reefs from a casino window. The reach of nature into almost every aspect of coastal and ocean-located tourism is likely vast.
Threats and impacts
Tourism can be a mixed blessing for the natural environment. Countless studies have highlighted impacts: coastal development has flattened habitats; noise and pollution have dispersed across almost all coastal waters. Solid waste, invasive species, novel diseases and the local impacts of anchors digging up seagrass and pulverising coral reefs are all widespread. Cruise tourism can bring high greenhouse gas emissions, low engagement with cultural and natural settings, crowding and very little local investment. Wildlife behaviour can be altered by crowds; nesting turtles are disorientated by coastal lights. All create a deep concern to the conservation community, but tourism can also ‘self-harm’: growing pushback and the excesses of crowding, development and pollution can also drive tourists away from destinations.
None of these impacts are inevitable, and most forms of tourism can be made sustainable. Furthermore, tourism can bring a very real value to nature, without which the impacts could be far worse. Overall, coral reefs have been estimated to generate US$36 billion in tourist expenditure annually. Thanks to the popularity of shark diving, the value of a single shark in Palau was estimated to be 16,000 times greater alive than dead. These and similar values have, in many places, already generated considerable efforts to protect these species and ecosystems, by establishing protected areas, restricting certain types of exploitation and so forth.
Current and future challenges
The global COVID pandemic and its stop-start recovery have had a deep impact on tourism, and on the people and economies that rely on it. Visitor numbers collapsed, particularly in international destinations, slashing the incomes of millions of people and entire countries. Recovery remains weak in many areas, while new geopolitical settings, and the economic instability linked to both pandemic and security issues, are creating considerable uncertainty.
Climate change is also beginning to emerge as a significant factor likely to influence travel. From a practical perspective, it seems possible that social, economic or even legal constraints to travel, particularly air travel, may emerge in efforts to reduce emissions. Climate change may also affect conditions on the ground, or their perception—increasing stories of droughts, floods, heatwaves and extreme hurricane damage may deter travellers from certain destinations. Widespread death of corals in extra warm years may have already impacted perceptions and travel patterns for some travellers hoping to visit these remarkable ecosystems, and such impacts also provide a salutary warning of likely future risks to other climate-sensitive systems.
Resilience—the ability to recover quickly from difficulties—is a term that can be applied both to tourism and to nature. Over the medium and even long term, marine and coastal tourism is unlikely to lose its value, or its market share, but its speed of recovery will vary, while spatial patterns and activities will change. This recovery rate can be managed. Countries and communities which can predict change, pre-empt impacts and adapt will have a much greater chance of maintaining or even growing their market share.
Nature, too, has a remarkable ability to recover from impacts or shocks, but here also resilience can be altered by human interventions. One striking example of this is with coral reefs: reefs are increasingly being damaged by warming water, and recovery is far from guaranteed, however there is clear evidence that healthy coral reefs are more likely to recover, and more quickly than those already burdened by other harms such as overfishing and pollution. Other ecosystems show similar variation in resilience.
Given nature’s current and growing importance, it could play a transformative role in helping to build resilience into future tourism, strengthen economies and reduce vulnerability to future shocks. At the same time, tourism needs to help to build the resilience of nature, reducing current impacts and supporting the enhancement of ecosystem health.
Support for building resilience in nature and the industry is increasing from governments and businesses, encouraging reduction of damage to nature or the creation of nature-positive benefits. Further support is coming from consumers. Growing concerns among travellers are driving a demand for sustainability. In many situations tourists have access to information that can determine pro-environmental choices. They are increasingly well-informed about emissions by transport providers, and major booking platforms are already enabling some environmental reporting. Environmental certifications for businesses exist and many will improve in scope and veracity over time. Meanwhile user-generated content is enabling travellers to report on environmental sustainability through social media and on online travel platforms.
Below I offer some strategies for strengthening resilience in both nature and the tourism industry, moving us from a situation of ad hoc choices or prioritisation by accident to a more considered and longer-term vision of where we may be able to pre-empt key problems and build a more stable and valuable base for coastal tourism.
Helping nature to help tourism
Raise awareness of nature dependency. Many, in the industry and in government, have only a vague awareness of nature’s role in supporting their income. Communicating the full range and depth of natural values is fundamental for long-term sustainability. The attitudes and actions of hotel owners, restaurateurs and even government leaders may be transformed by better knowledge of their reliance on coral reefs for sand, or on natural views for their entire destination image.
Protect natural values. Ensure that natural areas are adequately protected as an asset for the industry. A single poorly planned building can destroy a view forever; a poorly planned sewage system can pollute bathing waters; a poorly designed port or marina can kill reefs and seagrasses and lead to nearby beach erosion. Tourism needs a big vision and strict regulation to prevent such losses of value, and it needs to play a role in wider coastal and land-use planning.
Enhance natural values. Nature can be supported; restoration offers hope. Even where nature has been damaged or lost there is now a wealth of knowledge about how to enable its recovery. From the rebuilding of coral reefs, dunes and coastal mangroves, benefits may spiral, with cleaner water, improved seafood and better views generating greater returns from visitors.
Bring tourists to nature. The direct enjoyment of nature by tourists—birdwatching, whale-watching, snorkelling, coastal hiking or mangrove boating excursions—provides memorable experiences that encourage word-of-mouth promotion and return visits. It gives a tangible value to natural resources that might otherwise be overlooked.
Avoid harm. Some activities are less sustainable than others, and there can be conflicts. These can be avoided with careful planning. This may include controlling access to avoid the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (creating more exclusive experiences!) and encouraging lower-impact activities (kayaking rather than jet-skiing, or catch-and-release fishing rather than extractive fishing), or even zero impact and closed areas especially where nature is most productive or most vulnerable.
Building for new futures
Play a lead role in improving sustainability. The tourism industry can lead in local settings, generating patterns of best practice by reducing current impacts, for example by demanding improved wastewater treatment and ensuring that new developments are nature-positive, including building coastal setback in resort design, and creating natural areas within resorts where nature can thrive.
Promote low-volume, high-value tourism. COVID, conflict, economic uncertainty, flight avoidance and concerns about overtourism and overcrowding may lead to profound changes in the tourism model. For many countries reliant on international visitors, a return to high volumes and continuing growth may be unlikely. Countries and the industry could pre-empt such change and build an industry that generates higher returns per visitor rather than chasing perpetual growth of arrivals.
Institute marine spatial planning. The free-for-all nature of unplanned development can have negative impacts on all stakeholders. There is growing recognition that comprehensive and inclusive planning can not only minimise or circumvent conflict but also generate balanced returns for all stakeholders. This might, for example, include the separation of commercial fishing from popular snorkelling or swimming sites—rich fish communities and clean waters offer premium tourism locations, with the possibility of generating access fees, and can even enhance fishing opportunities in adjacent waters.
Offer sustainability. Countries and industry members can pre-empt the growth in demand for sustainability, first by ‘cleaning up their act’, reducing their impact and contributing to meaningful benefits to the natural environment. On climate change, all players in the industry should take a lead, encouraging low-emission travellers and embracing and owning offsetting or other emissions-reductions programmes.
Keep the benefits close to home. Reduce or remove the flow of financial benefits to offshore or foreign companies as a means to develop higher national returns per visitor. Countries and industry leaders should further endeavour to ensure that these financial flows also benefit local communities that are critical for supporting tourism.
Enhance payments for ecosystem services. Park-entry fees and environmental fees for international arrivals are already widely used, but there is room to strengthen and standardise them. Any such fees should be reinvested in nature and used to enhance benefits or offset opportunity costs.
Future coastal and marine tourism may be very different from what we see today. Social media and user-generated content is already a massive driving force informing destination choices. Increasing influences—from ‘foodstagrammers’ to ‘flightshaming’—could set new patterns and trends. Industry will, of course, try to influence such trends, but the national and international discourse on sustainability will also begin to exert an influence. It seems likely that certifications will become more independent and transparent, while legal or social demand for emissions reduction will begin to reduce high-emissions vacations, including long-haul and multi-stop destinations and high-emissions cruise tourism. Demand for low-density vacations in clean and healthy settings is likely to increase, which may create pressure for the expansion of the footprint of tourism. Keeping such change sustainable and “nature-positive” will be fundamental to success.
Climate change, financial instability, pandemic and war have created uncertainty and volatility, world-wide. In such settings the tourism sector may seem fragile, but its importance remains undoubted – both as a source of employment and income, and as a critical support to the health and wellbeing of billions of travellers. The industry has always had to change rapidly to meet changing circumstances, however there are also opportunities to reduce the unpredictable and to build resilience. Nature, already a crucial asset across the industry, can support this. In fact it seems increasingly likely that the safeguarding and restitution of nature will increasingly be forced upon the industry by changing legal, policy or social demands. But what also seems increasingly clear is that the greatest advantages—the most resilient and robust futures for coastal and marine tourism—will fall to the first movers: those who can pre-empt change and shape the change, rather than be shaped by it.
 World Travel and Tourism Council, The Economic Impact of Global Wildlife Tourism, 2019.
 A.M. Cisneros-Montemayor and U.R. Sumaila, “A Global Estimate of Benefits from Ecosystem-Based Marine Recreation: Potential Impacts and Implications for Management,” Journal of Bioeconomics 12, no. 3 (2010): 245–68.
 M.D. Spalding, L. Burke, S. Wood, J. Ashpole, J. Hutchison and P.z. Ermgassen, “Mapping the Global Value and Distribution of Coral Reef Tourism,” Marine Policy 82 (2017): 104–13.
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