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Expert Essay
Transformation: The Role of Coastal and Marine Tourism in a Sustainable Ocean Economy

How can coastal and marine tourism be a foundational building block for supporting countries to transition to a sustainable ocean economy?

Valerie Hickey
Valerie Hickey
Global Director of the Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice, World Bank

Coastal and marine tourism, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was an engine of economic growth. The sector was growing annually by an estimated US$134 billion per year and accounted for over one-quarter of the gross domestic product in at least seven small island developing states[1]. However, the pandemic has set this industry back by at least two years, with air travel and tourism not expected to return to 2019 levels before 2024[2]. Although coastal and marine tourism is not likely to recover more quickly, recent research indicates that nature-based tourism is increasing in popularity[3]. The latest World Tourism Organization figures show regions with a significant blue tourism sector regaining lost visitors. For example, international tourist arrivals to the Caribbean in 2021 were up by 63 percent compared to 2020, although they remained 37 percent below 2019 levels[4].

As noted by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, ‘Recovery following the COVID crisis presents an opportunity to think about innovative measures and where tourism businesses play an active role in uplifting local communities and protecting coastal and marine environments.’ Likewise, the World Bank, in its focus on ‘building back better’ post-COVID, looks to prioritise opportunities to transition to a blue economy, defined as the sustainable and integrated development of oceanic sectors in a healthy ocean, including through the development of a sustainable coastal and marine tourism sector. Three key considerations can help the sector along this transition.

  1. Marine spatial planning is an essential tool for the integration of tourism within a blue economy approach.

Marine spatial planning (MSP), an essential component of sustainable ocean plans, provides a framework to integrate coastal and marine tourism, along with other sectors, into a broader blue economy approach. The MSP process facilitates taking stock and thinking through how best to use a country’s marine areas and resources, including coastal and marine tourism, and how they will benefit people, economies and the ecosystems that communities depend on.

Marine and coastal tourism strategies, which are part of an integrated planning framework such as marine spatial planning, ensure that

  • key conflicts with other users are resolved upstream, before investment in the sector[5];
  • the marine spatial plan process balances the trade-offs that need to be made between tourism and other sectors, including conservation, so tourism can optimally contribute to a blue economy and deliver social and economic benefits; and
  • a marine spatial plan helps designate the most appropriate locations for tourism and links to sector plans such as tourism to efficiently manage environmental and social impacts, therefore maximising the sectors’ contribution to a blue economy.

In turn, integrating coastal and marine tourism into the MSP process helps improve the climate for investments in tourism that are sustainable, and ultimately support a blue economy. Furthermore, marine spatial planning reduces the risks of prolonged negotiations or conflicts among user groups, as well as the unforeseen costs from environmental problems, and provides the tourism sector with a much-needed degree of certainty to access coastal and marine resources, along with provisions for sustainable operations.

Integrating tourism into marine spatial plans also helps identify suitable areas where tourism can be diversified and avoid cumulative environmental impacts, as well as conflicts with other users. It can guide the tourism sector in conserving and protecting ecosystems and reduce sources of pollution such as marine plastics. The planning process can be integrated with other planning efforts such as land use planning and integrated landscape planning, thus further reducing the risks of pollution.

For example, in Cabo Verde the World Bank is supporting the integration of coastal fisheries and tourism value chains in Pontão de Santa Maria and surrounding area. This has increased the hospitality sector’s interest in locally sourced food. However, only 5–10 percent of hotel food is procured locally. Issues such as handling and sanitary requirements limit the ability of fishers and wholesalers to supply local hotels. An activity funded by the World Bank’s PROBLUE Trust Fund focuses on improving fishing landings and building fisher capacity to meet sanitary standards, which would ultimately help local fishing cooperatives to supply local hotels with sustainably caught fish. This activity is instrumental in raising the incomes of fishers and supporting tourist facilities’ ability to provide sustainably sourced fish that meet tourist demand.

In Albania, the potential for coastal and marine tourism has long been underdeveloped. The World Bank is working with the country to formulate a blue economy strategy that includes marine spatial planning, with a focus on sustainable tourism that conserves coastal ecosystems while providing economic growth and livelihoods for coastal communities.

A coastal and marine tourism strategy that supports a blue economy approach must consider how best to manage tourism for long-term sustainability. Recent research[6] suggests the following opportunities for better management:

  • Diversifying tourism based on natural and cultural characteristics
  • Promoting alternative locations to prevent overuse and degradation of marine resources
  • Introducing industry requirements for more sustainable practices
  • Considering policies and actions to engage and provide investment opportunities for local populations to benefit from blue tourism

A country tourism strategy that integrates marine spatial planning can ultimately strengthen the blue economy. At the enterprise level, industry guidance that is aligned with the country tourism strategy will ensure sustainability across entire business operations[7]. In Timor-Leste, the World Bank is currently supporting the parallel development of marine spatial planning and the country’s master tourism plan.

  1. Coastal and marine tourism must support healthier ecosystems that are resilient to climate change.

Coastal and marine tourism directly relies on healthy ecosystems and blue natural capital[8]. For example, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, over 350 million people visited coral reefs, generating a blue tourism sector worth an estimated $36 billion annually from direct and indirect use, with over 70 countries and territories endowed with ‘million-dollar reefs’[9]. These reefs generate over $1 million per square kilometre in tourism revenue annually. Improving the health of the coral reefs of the Caribbean, Central America and Southeast Asia could unlock billions of dollars each year[10]. However, marine ecosystems and blue natural capital are under threat from pollution, overuse and climate change. A recent World Bank report, The Changing of Wealth of Nations 2021, has shown that, as a share of total global wealth, blue natural capital fell by half from 1995 to 2018[11].

In a blue economy centred on the need to preserve these healthy ecosystems and blue natural capital, coastal and marine tourism can play a key role by fostering measures to reduce waste, and particularly of plastics. Functioning waste management systems are essential to curbing the amount of waste and marine plastics that make their way into the ocean. An added benefit is that solid waste management, even within resort complexes, is labour-intensive and supports job creation. Similarly, reducing the use of fertilisers and employing fewer toxic chemicals in cleaning can support a more sustainable tourism sector.

The sector can also benefit from blue standards and certifications that provide guidelines on what qualifies as a ‘sustainable’ or ‘blue’ tourism enterprise, similarly to the development of several initiatives to certify sustainable fisheries. To that end, the World Bank is preparing guidelines for small and medium coastal tourism enterprises in three West African countries to improve their sustainability including by lowering their environmental footprint with a focus on the use of plastics.

Another key area where the tourism sector can contribute to healthier ecosystems is through its reliance on, and interactions with, marine protected areas (MPAs). A recent World Bank study shows that protecting natural assets and reversing degradation is key to promoting biodiversity conservation and attracting visitors in the long term. Doing so has the potential to generate a return on investment at least six times the cost[12]. The returns and benefits of MPAs are more secure when the protected area is formalised, there is investment in management, MPA managers’ capacity is strengthened, and visitor numbers and impacts are monitored.

Diversifying blue tourism businesses in MPAs to generate additional revenue and economic benefits for local communities increases support for the sector and reduces the risk of overuse and degradation. To encourage investments in diverse coastal and marine tourism options, concession policies should be considered, especially since marine resources are often common property without clear tenure or access rights.

Furthermore, coastal and marine tourism activities will only support the transition to a blue economy if their managers and employees have the knowledge and capacity to follow best practices for the sector. Capacity within the tourism sector needs to be strengthened to mainstream sustainability best practices. Although encouraging guests to reuse towels and linens is a good start, significant shifts to sustainability require a whole-of-business approach. This includes looking beyond the boundaries of the enterprise and considering how to reduce impacts on surrounding communities and the ecosystems the business relies on.

The World Bank is also supporting coastal and marine tourism operators in West Africa with guidance and training to reopen safely and sustainably using virtual reality and artificial intelligence technology, with a view to meeting COVID-prevention standards with minimal environmental impact.

  1. Coastal and marine tourism should ensure that all stakeholders are engaged, and the needs of marginalised groups taken into account.

Effective engagement of stakeholders and local communities in every step during the planning process is necessary to ensure that the benefits from marine and coastal tourism are shared equitably with local communities. Research has shown that the active participation of diverse stakeholders results in higher-quality decision-making; balanced economic, social and environmental objectives; higher potential for stakeholder ownership and support; lower implementation costs; reduced conflicts among stakeholders; and access to new and additional information and knowledge[13]. The World Bank’s environmental and social safeguards ensure that stakeholders are meaningfully engaged in Bank projects, and this participation is strengthened through the its project ‘Marine Spatial Planning for a Resilient and Inclusive Blue Economy’.

For instance, the World Bank supported five Caribbean countries (Dominica, Grenada, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Kitts and Nevis)[14] in transitioning towards a blue economy by strengthening their capacity for ocean governance and coastal and marine geospatial planning. Earlier in the process, a stakeholder analysis enabled the project to focus its engagement plan on micro-, small and medium-sized marine-based tourism and hospitality enterprises. This was critical for ensuring that these stakeholders were aware of the MSP process and the opportunities they had to engage in it.


There is growing consensus that coastal and marine tourism can be a key building block to support countries’ transition to a blue economy[15]. This transition requires a tourism strategy grounded in a blue economy approach through marine spatial planning. Ensuring healthy blue natural capital is key to the long-term sustainability of the sector.


[1] United Nations, “Life below Water: Why It Matters,” Sustainable Development Goal no. 14, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/14_Why-It-Matters-2020.pdf; World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), “Tourism in Small Island Developing States: Developing a More Sustainable Future for the People of Islands,” August 2014, https://www.e-unwto.org/doi/pdf/10.18111/9789284416257.

[2] McKinsey and Company, “COVID-19: Implications for Business,” April 13, 2022, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/risk-and-resilience/our-insights/covid-19-implications-for-business.

[3] Markets and Technology Global Tourism Team, “Markets COVID-19 Guidance Note: Impact and Policy Responses in the Tourism Sector,” April 3, 2020.

[4] UNWTO, “World Tourism Barometer,” January 2022, https://www.e-unwto.org/doi/epdf/10.18111/wtobarometereng.2022.20.1.1

[5] Ecorys, Deltares and Oceanic Development, Blue Growth: Scenarios and Drivers for Sustainable Growth from the Oceans, Seas and Coasts, report to European Commission, DG MARE, 13 August 2012, https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/maritimeforum/en/node/2946.

[6] UNTWO, “World Tourism Barometer,”

[7] For example, Rainforest Alliance, Conservation International, Global Environment Facility, and UN Environment Programme, Guide to Good Practices for Sustainable Tourism in Marine-Coastal Ecosystems: Lodging Businesses, 2011, http://cpps.dyndns.info/cpps-docs-web/planaccion/docs2011/oct/turismo_biodiv/Doc.2.Guide_to_good_practices_marine_coasta_eng..pdf.

[8] IFC, Blue Natural Capital: Enhancing Business Outcomes and Sustainability of Coastal Tourism Markets, April 2021, https://www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/b32071a6-0d74-44e4-afa6-e261b6be5726/EMCompass-Note-101-Blue-Natural-Capital.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&CVID=nzrCRAF

[9] R. Brumbaugh, “Protecting Million Dollar Reefs Is Key to Sustaining Global Tourism,” UN Environment Programme, 10 May 2017, https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/protecting-million-dollar-reefs-key-sustaining-global-tourism.

[10] UN Environment Programme, Prince of Wales’ International Sustainability Unit, International Coral Reef Initiative and Trucost, The Coral Reef Economy: The Business Case for Investment in the Protection, Preservation, and Enhancement Of Coral Reef Health, 2018.

[11] World Bank, The Changing of Wealth of Nations 2021: Managing Assets for the Future, https://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/changing-wealth-of-nations.

[12] World Bank, “Caribbean Regional Oceanscape Project,” https://projects.worldbank.org/en/projects-operations/project-detail/P159653.

[13]. Frazão Santos, Catarina, Tundi Agardy, Francisco Andrade, Larry B. Crowder, Charles N. Ehler, and Michael K. Orbach. “Major Challenges in Developing Marine Spatial Planning.” Marine Policy, September 2018. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2018.08.032. &  Almodovar, Margarida, Demetrio De Armas, Fátima Lopes Alves, Luis Bentes, Catarina Fonseca, Jordi Galofré, Kira Gee, et al. “TPEA Good Practice Guide: Lessons for Cross-Border MSP from Transboundary Planning in the European Atlantic,” 2014. https://doi.org/10.13140/2.1.2915.1045

[14] World Bank, “Caribbean Regional Oceanscape Project.”

[15] Rainforest Alliance, Conservation International, Guide to Good Practices for Sustainable Tourism in Marine-Coastal Ecosystems, http://cpps.dyndns.info/cpps-docs-web/planaccion/docs2011/oct/turismo_biodiv/Doc.2.Guide_to_good_practices_marine_coasta_eng..pdf

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