World Oceans Day
A Close Look at Travel & Tourism’s Role
Tourism and the sea are inextricably tied together. It has been said that 80% of tourism is related to coastal areas, and that holds up in common sense: human beings love the sea and being close to it. In Travel & Tourism, this amounts to a GDP contribution of over $5 billion and millions of related jobs. And while coastal tourism is gaining national conversation, alongside these benefits come a host of other challenges. In tandem with discussions on coastal tourism, we need to talk frankly about creating and managing a sustainable model that balances the desires of tourists with the needs of our ocean ecosystems. The state of our oceans is a pressing issue intimately affecting the industry.
In May, the Thai government made the tough decision to indefinitely close the island of Koh Tachai, an idyllic national park on the Andaman Sea. “Severe deterioration of the ecosystem” was to blame, including litter, boat gasoline sullying the water, and damage to native coral. Unfortunately, these are problems commonly faced in places where people interact with the ocean. It’s not that the Travel & Tourism industry is unfamiliar with these issues, but rather that much of the conservation efforts are focused on land operations rather than on the oceans themselves. That needs to change.
More recently, UNESCO and Australia made headlines for censoring a report about the mass coral bleaching happening at the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). UNESCO’s “Destinations at Risk: World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate” would have seemingly been a call to arms to save our most at-risk world heritage sites from the looming impact of climate change. Instead, the Australian government protested the GBR’s inclusion, and — alarmingly — UNESCO agreed. In the final report about destinations at risk from global climate change, there were no mentions of the GBR. There is no sanitised version current events where the GBR could be characterised as “doing OK.” Mass coral bleaching is happening right now, and this is a story that could help galvanise the T&T industry into cohesive and comprehensive policies and actions.
Alongside conversations about the oceans and reefs, there is a very human element involved too; the stakes are high when it comes to ocean and coastal tourism. There are millions of people whose livelihoods come from the industry. Tourism spend in small island states represents nearly 5% of global tourism exports. Dirty beaches and dirty oceans negatively impact not only this income, but also the many related jobs. This includes resorts workers, beachside restaurants, dive instructors, sanitation works, and the many, many other positions that are intimately connected with the sea.
But beyond creating jobs, ocean ecosystems themselves provide vital services to the tourism sector. Coral reefs are not only beautiful to look at when snorkeling or scuba diving, but they also play an important role in creating clear, calm waters. And mangroves improve freshwater quality.
Perhaps most critically, coastal wetlands have huge potential when it comes to storing carbon, carbon emissions being one of the greatest challenges facing tourism sustainability. “Blue carbon” is a large portion of the world’s carbon stores — the T&T industry needs to ensure that development doesn’t negatively impact it. This is an area where the industry has a lot of work to do. The Blue Carbon Initiative is just one example of a group working on field-based projects designed to “conserve, restore and manage coastal ecosystems.” They are working with partners like IUCN and IOC-UNESCO to initiate and fund pilot projects with objectives like national-level accounting of carbon stocks and the development of blue carbon offsets for tourism activities.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #14 is “Life below water.” The SDG points out the need to conserve a resource that “drive[s] global systems that make the Earth habitable for humankind.” Problems addressed by the SDG brief include the rise in ocean acidification, overexploitation of fish stocks, and staggering levels of marine pollution. According to the UN, enhancing conservation efforts and sustaining ocean-based resources through international law is a high global priority. One of the specific targets for SDG 14 calls for tourism development as a means of driving economic benefits through the sustainable use of marine resources in small island developing states and least developed countries.
So what sort of action is the industry taking?
Many cruise companies already have advanced waste-management programmes. Royal Caribbean instituted their Save the Waves program, which is “an integral part of each crew member’s job and is the backbone of daily operations onboard [their] ships.” Save the Waves focuses on reducing, reusing, recycling, and making sure that nothing is ever thrown overboard. Carnival is also committed to the three “Rs” of waste minimisation, which it executes in practice with such habits as bulk purchasing, purchasing non-toxic products, treating waste on-board, and placing recycling containers around its ships. But as negative media reports surrounding the launch of Harmony of the Seas shows, there is still scepticism surrounding the extent of environmental actions taken by large cruise companies.
It’s not all bad news inasmuch as the tourism industry is concerned when it comes to oceanic conservation, though. Within the industry, many smaller scale operators are already working hard to make a difference.
The Misool Eco Resort in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, bills itself as a “dive resort and conservation center.” Misool was a 2012 Tourism for Tomorrow finalist for its support of numerous conservation initiatives and for the company’s focus on sustainable employment opportunities for locals. The resort’s island, Batbitim, is full of white-sand beaches and clear waters with rich coral reefs. The resort employs patrol boats to enforce its No-Take policy, which extends to shark finning and fishing.
Then there’s North Sailing of Husavik, Iceland. A 2016 T4T finalist, it is a company focusing on carbon-neutral whale watching. In addition to being the first group in Iceland to offer organized whale watching tours, North Sailing operates tours out of environmentally-friendly oak boats built in the traditional Icelandic fashion.
Red Sustainable Travel, a 2015 finalist, is focusing on tourism and conservation in Northwest Mexico. In its own words, “RED is a hybrid social enterprise that combines a for-profit tour operator that offers world class Conservation Adventures, with a non-profit organization that provides training, small business incubation and technical assistance in rural communities throughout northwest Mexico.” RED uses tourism to provide alternative livelihoods to unsustainable fishing communities. It’s this type of activity that is exactly called for in the SDGs.
Tourism is specifically mentioned in SDG #14. This is a unique opportunity. The industry needs to come together with a cohesive, global recognition of the close link between the quality of our oceans and the Travel & Tourism industry. Only once we take seriously this responsibility can we preserve the wellspring of life and happiness that unites so many creatures on Earth.
To read more on this topic, read what Fabien Cousteau had to say about oceans here.