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Expert Essay
Resilience: Ensuring a Future for Coastal and Marine Tourism

How can the resilience of coastal and marine tourism be strengthened and how can coastal and marine tourism help strengthen the resilience of host destinations and communities? Consider resilience to exogenous threats, such as climate change, as well as unpredictable future shocks, such as global pandemics.

Sally Yozell
Sally Yozell
Senior Fellow & Director, Environmental Security Program, The Stimson Center

Coastal and marine tourism, a key sector under threat

The health of the marine environment and the services its ecosystems provide are central to ocean and coastal tourism and underpin the blue economies of  communities around the globe. Millions of tourists seek out coral reefs, crystal-clear waters, sandy beaches and colourful marine life in coastal countries and small island states each year. The blue tourism industry (distinguished by whether the activities happen on land or sea) comprises 5 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) and almost 7 percent of global employment[1]. The economic impacts of these tourism dollars reach far beyond the shoreline. For instance, direct spending on coral reef activities (i.e. snorkelling and diving) has been estimated at US$19 billion per year; however, an additional $16 billion per year has been linked to ‘reef-adjacent’ tourism, including ‘the role of reefs in generating clear calm waters and beach sand, outstanding views, fresh seafood and even their widespread use in advertising’[2]. These ocean based tourism industries are the starting point for business supply chains that, while generally concentrated locally, can reach around the world. In 2019, tourists in the Pacific Island countries (Oceania) had a total economic impact of $142 billion. The same year, the economic impact of marine tourism in the Caribbean, much smaller geographically, was $48 billion, making up 14 percent of the total Caribbean economy[3].

Yet the places in and along the shoreline that support such vibrant tourism economies are invariably threatened by the damaging effects of climate change. Rising ocean temperatures and acidity, increasingly severe storms and rising sea levels are all impacting marine based tourism. Yet the threats do not stop at the coastline. Unsustainable tourism, aging infrastructure and often people who provide support services can cause unintended threats along to  coastal areas las well as in the surrounding communities; overcrowding from unplanned development, environmental degradation, pollution and polluted runoff all can pressure and harm marine resources and the places they support[4]. The strength and resilience of the blue economy is inextricably connected to the geographies, the people and the natural resources that surround it.

Resiliency, from reefs to ridges

Any plan to strengthen coastal resilience must recognise the interconnected risks that coastal and marine tourism faces from the land and the seaside. This includes taking into account  the communities that host these businesses, and the infrastructure affected by environmental events occurring upland and across the seascape. While ocean-based risks often receive the most attention, resilience planning must also understand and consider the vulnerabilities to the coast from land-based stressors.

These integrated risks have been clearly shown in a series of risk assessments conducted by the Stimson Center through its Climate and Ocean Risk Vulnerability Index (CORVI). CORVI, a decision-support tool that has been used in 11 island states and coastal cities, looks holistically across the land- and seascape focusing on economic, political, social and environmental risk factors to produce a coastal city risk profile with specific recommendations for climate risk mitigation and action.

For example, in the Caribbean, storms which hit the Blue Mountains in Jamaica or the hills of St. Kitts and Nevis can cause flooding that affects communities and businesses miles away. When inland flooding meets coastal storm surge and sea level rise, catastrophic flooding can occur. This can impact the tourism economy broadly. Cruise ship terminals, airports, hotels, restaurants and recreational outfitters are all at risk from the impacts—including damage recovery costs, as well as lost time and wages. Flooding from heavy inland rainfall and storm surge poses a risk to coastal cities of every size, from the 13,000 residents of Basseterre, St. Kitts and Nevis, to the more than 7 million living in the coastal city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In addition, these storms dump runoff, polluted with excess nutrients, contaminants and sediments, into the marine environment, harming coral reefs and seagrass ecosystems already stressed by warming waters and increasing ocean acidity. Storm-associated runoff is considered a major emerging threat to coral reef systems, affecting commercial and recreational uses of the resource such as snorkelling, recreational fishing, and bioprospecting[5].

The extent and impact of flooding events, whether originating from storm surge or heavy rainfall, is not only determined by the quantity of water or the topology of the land. For example, a recent vulnerability assessment in Kingston, Jamaica, revealed that flooding from the Blue Mountains is exacerbated by degraded ecosystems, widespread informal housing and shortcomings in solid waste management[6]. The latter can clog drainage channels, expanding the area affected and compounding the impacts. Risks related to informal housing are increasingly relevant around the world, especially in fast-growing cities like Mombasa, Kenya, which has nearly doubled in population over the last two decades, and where 65 percent of the population lives in informal settlements[7]. Inadequate assessment and planning, or a lack of enforcement capabilities, may lead to those informal settlements being located on precarious slopes or city watersheds, exacerbating risks well beyond their immediate proximity. Addressing climate risks can no longer be the sole purview of environmental ministries and non-governmental organisations but should also include economic, finance and development ministries, business representatives and municipal governments. It should take a holistic approach that crosses the land-sea boundary.

COVID-19, an opportunity for learning

In the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 began to spread around the world, coastal and marine tourism ground to a halt. As governments instituted social distancing, quarantines and travel restrictions, the global tourism market endured the single-biggest disruption to the market since record keeping began. In 2020, international arrivals dropped 74 percent—1 billion fewer travellers, which put between 100 and 120 million jobs at risk[8]. Economies highly dependent on coastal and marine tourism were hit hard. The Caribbean experienced a 58 percent decline in coastal and marine tourism GDP, and Pacific Island countries’ coastal tourism GDP declined by 45 percent. For comparison, declines in total GDP (for all sectors) were 9 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively, in 2020.

Ironically, at the same time, anecdotal and unexpected reports of nature’s recovery began to trickle in through social media. The canals in Venice began to run clear and fish could be viewed swimming. Dolphins appeared in waterways in southern Italy. CO2 emissions dropped by 6 percent, erasing five years of increase[9]. Unfortunately, there were also negative effects, as conservation dollars provided by marine and coastal tourism were reduced, as were the efforts to restore and enhance marine ecosystems that they had funded.

One thing remains clear, however: risks to coastal and marine tourism reach beyond the water’s edge. These risks are multidimensional and cannot be addressed using an isolated approach. Whether planning for climate risks, global pandemics or other potential shocks, resilience planning must be comprehensive and holistic, assessing the environmental, economic, social and political aspects of that risk, and understanding how different risks intersect and compound. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique opportunity to rethink resilience and build a more resilient coastal tourism economy.

Rethinking resilience: Building a more resilient coastal tourism economy

Building resilience and taking integrated action in projects and programmes to safeguard the tourism economy requires opening up to a new way of thinking. Given the multidimensional, interlinked and geographically broad scope of risks faced by coastal and marine tourism and host communities, strengthening coastal resilience requires bringing together diverse experts and stakeholders from across government, the private sector and civil society. Too often, the relationship between these different stakeholders is limited. Different ministries or departments of the same government can be siloed and do not necessarily interact. Those working in coastal and marine tourism can play a convening role, bringing business owners, civil society leaders, finance ministries, local government, environment ministries, urban planners, logistics experts and more into the room together. This type of collaboration can also help garner political and financial support for resilience actions and projects that have multidimensional benefits, such as nature-based solutions. Implementing nature-based solutions, such as mangrove or coral reef restoration, provides jobs, enhances the tourism economy, protects against storm surge and flooding, provides habitat for marine wildlife, can reduce coastal erosion, sequesters carbon and provides ecosystem benefits for port facilities. When these benefits are seen through a single lens or assessed to address a single mandate for fisheries, ports or flood management, proposals may not have the political heft to drive action. But when all of the benefits are assessed together, the strength of such outcomes should be enough to push implementation of projects forward. Yet such action still requires a collaborative approach.

Building coastal resilience to climate change requires many players with different kinds of expertise. Wealthier nations, development organisations, financial institutions and businesses that operate along the coast, including recreation and tourism (hotel chains, airlines, ecotourism, cruise lines, etc.) will need to work together to support climate adaptation across the coastal Global South. Historically, funding for climate resilience has lagged behind funding for carbon mitigation. Yet many communities that host coastal and marine tourism, especially small island states and coastal least developed countries, are the least responsible for climate change but most vulnerable to its impacts. This shortcoming, and the need for more resilience funding, was on display at COP26 in 2021. Moving towards COP27 in November 2022 presents an opportunity for the international community, both the private and public sectors, to balance this inequity and work together to increase and distribute funds through the Green Climate Fund, the Adaptation Fund, the Global Environment Facility and other international funding mechanisms. In addition, COP27 or the ‘Adaptation’ COP, which will convene in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, can encourage and incentivise a holistic and geographically broad approach to coastal climate resilience.

Climate adaptation funders and decision-makers need assurances that their money will be spent wisely, and that locally funded projects will effectively reduce climate risk and vulnerability. Only 10 percent of climate finance is invested at the local level for various reasons—from lack of expertise to inadequate data and national plans that haven’t been applied to local needs. The Stimson Center developed CORVI to facilitate a comprehensive approach that fills local data gaps and pinpoints areas of greatest climate risk. CORVI is comprehensive; it looks at 100 risk indicators and combines expert surveys, interviews, and existing datasets to develop risk scores which highlight the specific ocean and climate risks a coastal city faces. During the process, CORVI brings together public and private experts across 10 categories of climate and ocean risk to provide their expertise, which is often the first time such a diverse group has worked together across sectors, despite being part of the same government or from the same small island community. The expertise provided by those in the tourism industry has been consistently valuable across the 11 CORVI projects currently either underway or completed around the world, from the Caribbean to the South Pacific[10].

To build resilience where it matters most will take an all-of-society approach, requiring that everyone with a stake in coastal and marine tourism, such as governments, businesses and civil society, work cooperatively. We must seize opportunities to help protect and preserve ecosystems, including seagrasses, mangroves, corals, wetlands and sandy beaches, which naturally give back benefits and offer protection. To succeed, decision-makers should look beyond the water’s edge and assess and act comprehensively and holistically. A resilient blue economy requires that both the marine and terrestrial environments be sustainable and healthy.


[1] A.H. Bhuiyan, A. Darda, W. Habib and B. Hossain, “Marine Tourism for Sustainable Development in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh,” Asian Development Bank Institute Working Paper 1151 (2020). https://www.adb.org/publications/marine-tourism-sustainable-development-cox-bazar-bangladesh

[2] M. Spalding, L. Burke, S.A. Wood, J. Ashpole, J. Hutchison and P. Ermgassen, “Mapping the Global Value and Distribution of Coral Reef Tourism,” Marine Policy 82 (January 2017): 104–13, 10.1016/j.marpol.2017.05.014.

[3] World Travel and Tourism Council, “Economic Impact Reports,” 2021, https://wttc.org/Research/Economic-Impact.

[4] Bhuiyan et al., “Marine Tourism for Sustainable Development.”

[5] A. Shore, J.A. Sims, M. Grimes, L.I. Howe-Kerr, C.G.B. Grupstra, S.M. Doyle, L. Stadler et al., “On a Reef Far, Far Away: Anthropogenic Impacts Following Extreme Storms Affect Sponge Health and Bacterial Communities,” Frontiers in Marine Science 8 (2021): 608036. doi:10.3389/fmars.2021.60803; 6J.L. Orlando and S.H. Yee, “Linking Terrigenous Sediment Delivery to Declines in Coral Reef Ecosystem Services,” Estuaries and Coasts 40 (2017): 359–75, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-016-0167-0.

[6] T. Rouleau, J. Stuart and S. Yozell, “CORVI Risk Profile: Kingston, Jamaica,” Stimson Center, 1 June 2020, https://www.stimson.org/2020/corvi-risk-profile-kingston-jamaica/

[7] UN-Habitat, UN-Habitat Support to Sustainable Urban Development in Kenya, vol. 4, Report on Capacity Building for Community Leaders (Nairobi: UN Human Settlements Programme, 2016), https://unhabitat.org/sites/default/files/download-manager-files/UN-Habitat%20SSUDK_%20Report_Vol%204_final.LowRes.pdf.

[8] World Tourism Organization, “2020: Worst Year in Tourism History with 1 Billion Fewer International Arrivals,” 28 January 2021, https://www.unwto.org/news/2020-worst-year-in-tourism-history-with-1-billion-fewer-international-arrivals.

[9] International Energy Agency, “Global Energy Review 2020: The Impacts of the Covid-19 Crisis on Global Energy Demand and CO2 Emissions,” https://www.iea.org/reports/global-energy-review-2020/global-energy-and-co2-emissions-in-2020.

[10] CORVI projects are underway or completed in Basseterre, St. Kitts and Nevis; Bridgetown, Barbados; Castries, St. Lucia; Chattogram, Bangladesh; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Dagupan, the Philippines; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Kingston, Jamaica; Mombasa, Kenya; Suva, Fiji; and Tarawa, Kiribati.

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