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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.

Wouter Schalken
Wouter Schalken
Asian Development Bank Senior Sustainable Tourism Specialist

Contributors: Manoj Sharma, Steven Schipani and Sanya Grover


The world’s oceans have inspired travel and tourism for generations, with marine and coastal tourism (MCT) growing constantly from the mid-20th century until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic[1]. In 2019, the travel and tourism sector contributed 10.3 percent to global gross domestic product (GDP), with 333 million people employed across the sector globally, representing 1 in every 11 jobs[2].

About 80 percent of all tourism is concentrated in coastal areas, and the global cruise industry has the capacity to carry more than 27 million passengers annually[3]. Activities related to MCT, like beach holidays, diving, sports fishing and cruising, constitute a significant part of the blue economy worldwide and are major sources of employment in most small island developing states—two-thirds of which rely on tourism for more than 20 percent of their GDP[4].

Although the travel restrictions and economic slowdown associated with COVID-19 reduced travel and tourism’s global GDP contribution to 5.3 percent in 2020, recovery started in 2021, and the World Travel and Tourism Council expects return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2022. Once again, tourism is demonstrating a strong ability for market recovery. Even so, coastal and marine tourism—and the millions of livelihoods it supports—could vanish permanently in many destinations if climate change and accelerating environmental degradation are not urgently addressed in a resilient manner.

Key issues

The ecosystem that coastal and marine tourism relies on is under threat from over-extraction, environmental degradation, climate change and other sources, including consumer behaviour.

Climate change: More intense rainy seasons, longer dry spells and more frequent floods are severely challenging coastal and marine tourism destinations. Destinations face higher air and water temperatures, more storm days and more rainy days, curtailing the availability of beaches, oceans and seas for tourism activities. Warmer weather may lengthen the beach season, but the warmer waters boost bacteria growth and numbers of jellyfish, drastically reducing visitor appeal, while increased bad-weather days restrict cruising, sailing and yachting. Ocean warming plus acidification could reduce the economic potential of the coral reef tourism industry by over 90 percent in 2100[5]. Climate change is therefore compromising activity- and site-specific tourism globally. Increasing (air and water) temperatures and rising sea levels require the tourism sector to adjust operations and facilities to ensure resilient operations and minimise impact.

Required adjustments are likely to come with high costs that reduce the sector’s sustainability and therefore its resilience. Applying climate- and nature-smart interventions can help control operating costs while at the same time improving local value chains.

Environmental degradation: Such harms are mainly due to inadequate management of tourism (and other economic) activities in a coastal destination. Construction (of infrastructure, buildings and tourism facilities) change the landscape, often compacting and sealing the soil, damaging and destroying vegetation, disturbing flora and fauna, and making destinations more vulnerable to landslides, while the intensive use of energy, water and land by tourism and leisure facilities leads to falling water tables and reduced air quality. Waste and littering are the most visible aspect of environmental degradation, both in coastal zones and the ocean, with the cruise industry damaging ocean health by dumping wastewater.

The more fragile the environment in a destination, the more irreversible the degradation. Atolls and associated coral reefs are highly vulnerable, as are mangroves and forest covers that reach the sea.

How can we strengthen the resilience of coastal and marine tourism?

Biodiversity protection, nature-based approaches to climate adaptation, blue investments and greener and more sustainable (coastal and marine) tourism practices can offer cost-effective and longer-lasting solutions for building more resilient ecosystems, communities and economic activities while at the same time providing additional sources of revenue and employment. These measures rely to a large extent on worldwide consumer practices and the effects of global warming, non-tourism-sector externalities that are beyond the scope of this perspective. The tourism sector and, more specifically, the coastal and marine tourism (CMT) sub-sector, has its own distinct footprint and, as such, can contribute significantly to improving resilience.

Strengthening the resilience of CMT requires intervention across three areas:

  1. Policy, planning and financing

The CMT sector requires appropriate policies and regulations to ensure its resilience and sustainability. Destinations highly dependent on CMT should have separate policies that address the challenges of the sector. Appropriate policy includes the following elements:

  • Support for (establishment of) a protected area network of marine and coastal parks and reserves, including beach parks. Effective, direct on-site protection starts with a clear protected tenure over the resource base, in line with IUCN recommendations. Such tenure determines what can and can’t be done in and with coastal and marine resources. The objective is not to stop alternative resource use (livelihood activities like fishing) but to increase the level of effective control.
  • Regulations in support of a resilient sector. These depend on local circumstances and can range from a blanket ban on the sale or use of plastics to the closure of sites and areas during breeding season or limiting visitor numbers to popular attractions. Permits and licensing help ensure that sufficient diversity is maintained across ‘resource usage categories’ (described below under “3. Operational practices and diversification”) to improve destination resilience while at the same time improving the nature-positive practices of every CMT enterprise.
  • Empowerment of the right authority, with designated funding, to ensure a clear mandate in sustainable and resilient tourism and its operations. This authority should take a long-term perspective, keeping in mind the changing climate and disaster risks.

Understanding how the tourism system functions, the benefits it accrues and the costs incurred, is essential, as is capacity building of stakeholders, especially those who govern the sector. Officeholders need to understand tourism’s impact on industry stakeholders as well as on the public at large. Awareness-creation among all residents is key to ensuring a resilient destination.

Data, especially environmental data, should be used for zoning and licensing to ensure that tourism infrastructure and facilities are not built in areas where coastal erosion, water-levels, severe weather and the like are known to restrict operations and endanger visitors and staff. Establishing networks across different governance levels and policy domains enables more effective coordination, building trust and legitimising decisions using data. Local democracy is strengthened by facilitating participation, involving stakeholders early and consistently through to implementation, with particular attention to engaging Indigenous people and other marginalised and vulnerable groups. Sustaining an effective and resilient sector and its governance system requires generation of revenue and financing to compensate for losses due to harms in the sector as well as for mitigation measures and nature-positive development. Such financing can take a number of forms:

  • Insurance or compensation for operational losses due to severe weather damage, such as parametric insurance for coral reefs.
  • A green or blue fund for nature-positive construction and/or retrofitting of enterprises (energy, waste, etc.) and exploration of innovative financial models.
  • An innovative payment system, such as an environmental fee, for the use of public coastal areas (beaches) to cover the costs of cleaning and maintenance.
  • A destination-level ‘rainy day facility’ to compensate fixed costs incurred by small and medium enterprise tourism entrepreneurs and to ensure their survival. For example, the Pacific Island of Guam established a rainy day fund (1.5 percent of projected budget) to meet unforeseen challenges resulting from either a natural or man-made disaster, or from external economic conditions that have severely affected Guam’s ability to attract visitors.
  1. Infrastructure or nature-based solutions

Tourism requires the right physical infrastructure to ensure resilience. Such infrastructure needs to be of sufficient capacity (e.g. waste-water systems in coastal towns or parking spaces at the beach), reflect climate-mitigating measures such as building codes and standards to address adverse weather impact (storms and flooding) and apply nature-based solutions (e.g. mangrove protection not only boosts nature tourism but also protects coasts from floods and strengthens climate resilience). Many of the requirements are destination-specific. Island nations such as the Philippines and Maldives require safe berthing for ships and vessels that withstands higher seas and strong(er) winds. Bridges and coastal roads require new building standards to withstand climate change impact, while urban coastal areas may need to revise planning and zoning of basic service-delivery facilities such as fresh drinking water reservoirs or landfills. Since island nations’ geographic location brings the added challenge of resource mobilisation, applying appropriate integrated, nature-based solutions for infrastructure investments will be essential. Development financing is increasingly tailored towards such integrated efforts; a good example is the Asian Development Bank’s proposed Philippines Sustainable Tourism Project[6] aimed at restoration of key tourism infrastructure, improving Marine Protected Area Management, alternative livelihoods creation for fishing dependent communities, mangrove and seagrass replanting and the establishment of a skills training networks to train tourism workers in better environmental practices.

  1. Operational practices and diversification

To serve more conscious and critical consumers[7], tourism enterprises have started adapting the way they function to become more sustainable and target net-zero (even net-positive) operations. The challenge is to get all enterprises to operate in a sustainable, inclusive and nature-positive way. Larger operators are taking the lead in ensuring that their value and supply chain is aligned with their own targets. A scale-up of such efforts will go a long way towards improving resilience.

The scope of what different enterprises offer affects diversification and thereby the resilience of a destination. The three distinct operational categories of coastal and marine tourism (see Annex) each attract different market segments. These are divided according to the degree or intensity of resource use, recognising that ‘the tourist’ often uses a mixture across these categories. The higher the level of use, the more important and influential the (coastal and marine) resources’ health is for use by consumers. The benefits that accrue from coastal and marine tourism are also higher with increasing ‘resource use’, as is the need to strengthen resilience (as elaborated in Annex).

Diversification across markets has proved to increase resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, when domestic markets became dominant, and governments may use the crisis as an opportunity to diversify their economies to absorb future shocks[8]. Resilience is further found in the ability of marine and coastal resources to produce livelihood value beyond tourism. For example, marine protected areas improve fish stock[9], sustaining a protein-rich staple for coastal communities during an economic downturn in the absence of tourists. A number of tourism operations offer models:

  • Six Senses Hotels & Resorts applies design and construction standards for beachfronts with natural vegetation and transitional spaces, and without hardscapes or barriers. The standards include lighting that is safe for nesting sea turtles. The company’s Sustainable Operations Guidelines require ethical codes of conduct in relation to seafood purchasing, diving and snorkelling experiences, waste-water treatment and the like.
  • The world’s largest hotel group, Accor, is phasing out single-use plastics by the end of 2022 in guest rooms, meeting areas, restaurants and leisure activity areas.
  • Intrepid Travel applies a science-based target by reviewing its itineraries to identify opportunities for further nature-positive tourism activities, including electric vehicle use on trips. Intrepid’s offices will continue to be moved onto renewable energy. The business will also recalculate emissions factors and look to launch carbon labels for trips, to make it easier for customers to understand the impact of their travel.
  • Royal Caribbean Cruises has committed to reduce the rate of carbon emissions an additional 35 percent by 2025 (from 2020).
  • The Asian Development Bank, together with UNDP and UNEP, has launched a regional finance facility called SME BlueImpact Asia to accelerate small and medium ocean enterprises in climate positive operations, including the CMT sector. The facility will also guide and serve lessons for a recently developed Blue Pacific Finance Hub[10], which supports economies through blue investments.

How can coastal and marine tourism help strengthen the resilience of host destinations and communities?

Coastal residents are often directly and indirectly involved in the tourism sector. Those not directly employed in (or owners of) tourism enterprises often work in fishing, agriculture, aquaculture or transport, activities that supply and support the visitor economy. Their livelihoods’ dependence on the tourism sector often makes them doubly vulnerable to disturbances. For example, plastic pollution on the local beach may both reduce residents’ income from tourism and endanger their health.

Tourism has proved to be an excellent driver of community-based natural resource management. Where coastal and marine resources are subject to common property or usage rights, the economic user rights from tourism should also fall to local residents. In other words, if the beach belongs to them, they should benefit from visitors’ use of that beach. The most effective way of ensuring this is often through partnership with the private tourism sector. In return for controlled use of marine and/or coastal areas, such a partnership can include the payment of land-rent to communities, employment, access to energy and water sources, capital projects (e.g. all-weather road access to villages) and so on. Often, additional supply chain linkages are explored whereby local entrepreneurs provide the tourism company with fresh produce, lead guest activities (e.g. sunset cruises, fishing trips) or stock the souvenir shop.


A resilient CMT sector requires active, coordinated interventions at the operational level, supported by appropriate policy and regulation and informed by real-time data and empowered authority. This can make the sector an innovator for climate adaptation, one that integrates local value chains and livelihoods.



Table 1. Level of resource utilisation in coastal and marine tourism and its resilience need

Use of oceans/sea/ coast as Examples Characteristics Need for resilience
Setting/decor (low use) § promenades

§ boardwalk

§ harbour front

§ waterfront

§ viewpoints/beaches

§ jetties

§ coastal hotels, resorts, guesthouses, holiday rentals, etc.

§ Predominant open-space management by public entities

§ (Established or expanded) informal sites made popular through social media but lacking basic services (e.g. sunset hill)

§ Possible impact from rising sea levels and floods

§ Limited direct revenue creation but reliance on (high-value) basic infrastructure

§ Location often holds (high) commercial value for retail, food and beverage (F&B), and accommodation

§ Low direct employment (concentrated in F&B and accommodation)

§ Conflicting resource use and high instances of trespassing

§ Direct behavioural impact (e.g. littering)

While the ‘use’ of the ocean as backdrop is acceptable even if the water is slightly polluted, this will not be true in the active use category. Scuba diving, trophy fishing, surfing, paddleboarding or motorised coastal activities, such as flyboarding, paragliding or ‘UFO rides’, etc. are all highly dependent on appropriate environmental conditions.


Transition space (intermittent use) § cruises/yachting

§ ferries

§ coastal/scenic drives

§ Extensive use of high seas (unregulated)

§ Limited destination-level employment

§ High capital outlay for infrastructure (marinas, harbours, terminals) and vessels

§ Highly flexible itineraries

§ Coastal roads often incur high maintenance (toll roads)

The use of the ocean by cruise ships can largely be considered transitional use only. The bigger the vessels, the more ‘inward-looking’ the product becomes, with recreational and retail activities available on board in addition to accommodations and  a variety of F&B outlets. Time allocated to destination is highly limited compared to time spent on board. For most guests, the experience does not go deeper than that of an exotic decor.
Activity area (consumptive and non-consumptive) (high use) § beach

§ sports / trophy fishing

§ snorkelling/diving

§ surfing/sailing

§ canoeing / paddle boarding / kayaking

§ paragliding / UFO rides / water skiing, etc.

§ flyboarding / jet skiing


§ Highly behaviour-dependent impact with direct environmental impact

§ Conflicting activities and space competition

§ Substantial capital investment in movable assets with high maintenance and operating costs

§ Highly weather-dependent / highly seasonal

§ Storage and maintenance costs

§ Often linked to resort operations

§ Beach access remains largely free, with payment for auxiliary services (i.e. parking, public transport)

Higher ‘usage’ levels also come with a higher level of investment into property, equipment and infrastructure to support this more direct use of coastal and marine resources (coastal roads are exceptions). This exposes the sector, and its resilience, even further, as the financial sustainability of ventures can be reduced by fluctuations in visitor numbers when operating in a fragile environment and catering to seasonal demands.



[1] M.L. Miller, J. Auyong and N.P. Hadley, Sustainable Coastal Tourism: Challenges for Management, Planning, and Education, 2002, https://nsgl.gso.uri.edu/washu/washuw99003/1-Introduction_Miller.pdf.

[2] World Travel and Tourism Council statistics for 2022; www.wttc.org.

[3] Cruise Market Watch, “Growth of the Ocean Cruise Line Industry,” https://cruisemarketwatch.com/growth/; PEMSEA, “Blue Economy,” http://pemsea.org/our-work/blue-economy.

[4] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Making Development Co-operation Work for Small Island Developing States (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2018).

[5] If climate change continues under a high-emissions scenario. S. Gaines, R. Cabral, C.M. Free, Y. Golbuu et al., The Expected Impacts of Climate Change on the Ocean Economy, High Level Panel on a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 2020).

[6] The Proposed Philippines Sustainable Tourism Project is currently under negotiation to support the municipalities of Coron and El Nido.

[7] Recent studies show that a growing number of tourists are demonstrating environmental awareness and interest in reducing the negative impacts of their travel. J. Higham et al., “Climate Change, Tourist Air Travel and Radical Emissions Reduction,” Journal of Cleaner Production 111 (2016): 336–47.

[8] UN Conference on Trade and Development, 2020. Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Trade and Development: Transitioning to a New Normal (New York: United Nations, 2020).

[9] A study shows that increasing marine protecting areas by as little as 5 percent can help improve fish stock by at least 20 percent. R.B. Cabral, D. Bradley, J. Mayorga, W. Goodell, A.M. Friedlander, E. Sala, C. Costello and S.D. Gaines, “A Global Network of Marine Protected Areas for Food,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117, no. 45 (2020): 28134–39.

[10] ADB. 2020. ADB Blue Pacific Finance Hub – a regional approach. Manila. https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/786536/adb-blue-pacific-finance-hub-approach.pdf

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