Critical Perspectives on Ecotourism. Socio-Economic and Social Impacts of Marine Ecotourism on the Wellbeing of Local Communities

Essay, 2020

13 Pages, Grade: 78/100


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Socio-Economic Opportunities of Marine Ecotourism

3 Ecotourism: The Holy Grail for Community Development?

4 Conclusion


1 Introduction

While the ocean has long been a place for resource extraction, new economic desires and progressive ecosystem degradation have complicated the management processes that balance competing stakeholder interests and conservation needs (Altamirano-Jiménez, 2017; Arnason, 2013; Grip and Blomqvist, 2020; McClanahan et al., 2015). As an alternative to often ineffective state-centric approaches, neoliberal forms of conservation have increasingly gained attention in environmental governance. Marine ecotourism offers a market-based solution for biodiversity conservation while contributing to the development of communities in coastal areas by providing alternative livelihood opportunities (Das and Chatterjee, 2015) . However, its implementation requires fundamental administrative, demographic, economic and infrastructural changes, which often challenges the livelihoods of local communities (Vaccaro et al., 2013). The outcomes of marine ecotourism activities have been studied along different trajectories of research. To emphasize the socioeconomic and social contributions of marine ecotourism activities to a region, academics determine the economic value attributed to a natural resource and assess its impact at different spatial and social scales (Gallagher et al., 2015; Vianna, G. et al., 2012). Due to the inherent development component of ecotourism, there is a need to critically examine the identified impacts on local communities to fully understand its value to coastal communities.

This review essay aims to synthesise the current understanding of socio-economic and social impacts of marine ecotourism on the wellbeing of local communities by discussing the findings presented in recent empirical research papers. Whilst the majority of studies available target elemental ecotourism involving activities around charismatic megafauna as key attractors to protected areas (Weaver, 2005), this review considers studies conducting economic impact evaluations on shark diving and whale watching, as well as social impact studies of tourism development in protected areas. Firstly, the key findings of empirical case studies are presented and analysed, focusing on how these argue for the marketization of marine resources through ecotourism either as a development opportunity or as a means for species conservation. This is followed by an analysis on how this form of environmental governance involves novel forms of power between communities and government institutions . This review argues that that marine ecotourism as a means of neoliberal conservation presents opportunities as well as constraints for environmental justice.

2 Socio-Economic Opportunities of Marine Ecotourism

As a widely underestimated alternative to whaling - a commercial activity that almost vanished under the moratorium inflicted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) – whale watching is increasingly gaining popularity with the potential to generate socio-economic benefits around the world (Cisneros-Montemayor et al., 2010; Kuo et al., 2012). Researchers emphasize whale watching as an alternative livelihood approach, particularly to remote island communities that struggle to sustain their subsistence. Based on the long history of interaction with humpback whales in Tonga, Kessler and Harcourt (2012) see ecotourism as a valuable approach to counter pro-whaling initiatives and providing additional income to local communities. Orams (2013) demonstrates the increasing influence of whales as a tourist attraction in Tonga. The economic benefits through direct expenditure on tours, but also the indirect expenditures of tourists that specifically came to interact with whales, as well as the induced expenditures of whale-based tourism businesses in the local community, i.e. through accommodation or transport, have a profound effect on the local economy. While the author acknowledges the shortcomings in the calculation regarding the neglect of costs associated with whale-watching ecotourism, the estimates considered in this study indicates the importance of whales in the area. However, the study raised the issue of leakages of tourist expenses, as most businesses are not owned by Tongans (Orams, 2013). Economic benefits may therefore not be retained in the local community and are not available for development, leading to the inequitable distribution of income (Wiranatha et al., 2017). Supporting this, investigation by Mayer et al. (2018) into the link of governance to generated socio-economic benefits of Eastern Pacific gray whale in the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, Mexico highlights the importance of thorough resource management and demonstrates a positive example of successful inclusion of the local community into ecotourism activities. By limiting access to larger companies and issuing whale watching licences to community-owned operators, the government ensures that revenues are retained in the local economy when fishing is prohibited during the whale season (Mayer et al., 2018). Residents have a say in management decisions and many value the regulations for reducing conflicts in the community. However, based on the seasonality of whale watching and limited accessibility of the region, the researchers attribute limited potential to the whale watching industry as a driver for economic development (Mayer et al., 2018). Nevertheless, the economic importance of gray whales in the area is confirmed by Schwoerer et al. (2016) that evaluated their impact on two communities located in Baja California Sur, Mexico, just hours south of the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve. The researchers argue in support of the conservation of Eastern Pacific gray whales based on the positive value of the economic rent associated with whale watching. Instead of using tourist expenditures to calculate the economic value, their cost-approach considers the net income generated by natural resources. Interestingly, their results show differences between the two investigated study sites (Schwoerer et al., 2016). Their findings stress the importance of considering wider site-specific characteristics when evaluating the potential of ecotourism in an area.

Compared to the amount of empirical research on the socio-economic benefits of ecotourism activities with whales, shark diving seems to receive more attention amongst scholars. While many cetacean populations are recovering under the moratorium, sharks are threatened by the demand for fins, overfishing, fisheries bycatch, habitat and prey loss, and human disturbance, which demands for urgent action (Cisneros-Montemayor et al., 2013). By showing the monetary value of sharks, many conservation scientists use economic impact evaluation as a means to argue for their recreational use over consumption. Clua et al. (2011) used the concept of total economic value in combination with observations on the interactions of individual animals with divers at provisioning sites to assess the non-consumptive direct use value of individual sicklefin lemon sharks in French Polynesia. Based on direct expenditures on shark diving and assumptions on the indirect tourist expenditure on complementing products and services, they render a live shark as more valuable than a dead one. However, this calculation is rather simple, since indirect expenditures are based on assumptions and not on actual values and costs to establish and sustain the activity are completely disregarded.

A more comprehensive approach offers a study by Vianna, G. et al. (2012) on shark diving in Palau. Their calculation focuses on the economic benefits that are retained in the local economy and includes tourists’ expenditures, business revenue from tourism, direct community income from shark diving, cost of shark-diving operation, the indirect value of shark diving to fishers as well as tax revenues. By directly comparing the yearly business revenue of diving (US$18 million) to fishing revenues (US$10 800) and establishing the consumption net present value to 0.006% compared to non-consumptive use over 16 years, they reason for the recreational use of sharks as the more lucrative business case long-term. The socio-economic benefits to the community are clearly conveyed through wages and salaries to employees resident in Palau (US$1.2 million) and the benefits to fishers through increased sales of catch due to the presence of shark divers (US$1 200 per fisher/year), contrasted to only US$196/year one-off income through the sales of shark meat and fins. While this study is limited insofar that it mainly considers direct expenditures but the indirect and induced values only in part, it gives a sufficient indication of the economic impact of shark diving in Palau and how this is distributed amongst the different stakeholders (Vianna, G. et al., 2012). The researchers used a similar approach determine the economic value of shark diving in Malaysia, but also applied contingent valuation analysis to indicate dive tourists’ willingness to pay for the implementation of a marine protected area (MPA) to protect local sharks (Vianna, G.M. et al., 2018). It is argued that the creation of a protected area would not have detrimental effects on local fishers, since most fishers already have partial employment in diving local businesses and will be able to shift their fishing strategy to catch other fish (Vianna, G.M. et al., 2018) . However, both of these assumptions are neither supported by current data nor backed-up by statements of local fishers and therefore profoundly generalize individual circumstances. Statements like these must be evaluated critically, as they depict fishers as an object of unopposed transformation for the sake of conservation (Segi, 2014).

While the studies presented so far attempt to reason with the necessity for shark conservation by presenting evidence of their economic importance to local economies, Haas et al. (2017) demonstrate how long-term conservation efforts by the Bahamian government has enabled the shark diving industry in The Bahamas to become the largest in the world, contributing US$109.4 million annually in direct and value-added expenditures to the economy. Tourism is now the country’s primary industry and livelihoods have adapted to tourist demand over the years (Sherman et al., 2018). This example highlights not only the necessity to facilitate mechanisms that support livelihood adaptation when developing ecotourism, but also the significance of thorough conservation efforts on the economy. The importance of this is supported through the findings of a study by Zimmerhackel et al. (2018), who calculate changes of the economic impact of shark diving under different scenarios (status quo, sharks absent, shark fishing absent and present, abundance increase and decrease, conservation through dive operators present and absent) in the Maldives by utilizing the travel cost method and the contingent behaviour model. The results show decreases in demand for shark diving under the presence of shark fishing, declining shark populations as well as a lack of conservation efforts, resulting in lost profits (Zimmerhackel et al., 2018). With these finding, conservation responsibility is assigned to dive operators in order to sustain their business long-term. To offset fishers for loss of earnings in case of shark fishing bans, the researchers suggest the implementation of compensation schemes financed by dive tourists, i.e. entrance fees. While mechanisms of this kind are a common management strategy of MPAs and have been successful in some cases (Brunnschweiler, 2010), they have caused mistrust and resentment in others where authorities retained fees (Brondo and Bown, 2011; Kamat, 2014). Therefore, their success depends on the integrity of the management institutions.

Not all studies follow the conservation narrative backed up with the results of the economic impact evaluation. Pires et al. (2016) use the travel cost method to determine the proportion of shark diving as part of an overall assessment of the recreational value of marine resources in the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago in Brazil and find that sharks are currently not the primary tourist target of the region. Their projections suggest that increased marketing of the archipelago as a shark diving destination could significantly increase the economic contribution of sharks to the local economy. However, the results also show a likely disadvantage of fishermen: by selling fish to shark diving tourists instead of shark meat to local restaurants, their per capita income decreases significantly (Pires et al., 2016). This results differs from what was found by Vianna, G. et al. (2012). This seemingly discrepancy is solely based on the varying estimates regarding the potential revenue of both activities. However, neither of those assumptions are backed by actual data and their conclusions need to be evaluated critically. Whilst recognizing the disadvantages for fishers, Pires et al. (2016) argue that shark diving creates a net benefit for the wider community and can therefore contribute to the attractiveness of the area as a tourism destination.

3 Ecotourism: The Holy Grail for Community Development?

The studies reviewed have one thing in common: they all associate a direct economic benefit through the presence of ecotourism activities and therefore either argue for ecotourism as development opportunity or as a means for species conservation, mainly by establishing MPAs to provide the legal and political framework. While short-term drawbacks for local fishers are being acknowledged in some instances (Orams, 2013; Pires et al., 2016), most economic-focused studies indicate an overall net benefit for local communities. Mayer et al. (2018) highlight the importance of adequate governance to retain these benefits and avoid leakages while facilitating community participation in the management of ecotourism activities.

Researchers have used the results of economic impact evaluation to compare between the consumptive and non-consumptive use of sharks and present a, in their opinion, meaningful argument for their conservation. Catlin et al. (2013) demonstrate that this conclusion is often based on unscientific methodologies and unsubstantiated assumption (i.e. speculated causality between presence of wildlife and tourism value and steady behaviour patterns of individual animals). While in some studies tourists were specifically asked about the reason for their trip to establish a direct relationship between the animals present and the activity (Clua et al., 2011; Zimmerhackel et al., 2018), it is also acknowledged that further development of the activity is possible due to existing demand for the overall area as a tourist destination (Pires et al., 2016). Therefore, these socio-economic impacts cannot be understood outside of the broader context for which they are predicted. This is supported by the findings in the study conducted by Schwoerer et al. (2016), who have found differences in the economic impact of the same species in different locations. Furthermore, empirical evidence examining the ecological impacts on animals due to the presence of tourists has shown detrimental environmental impacts of ecotourism activities on marine species and ecosystems. Amongst physical damage (e.g. scarring of individuals through boat collisions (Araujo et al., 2017) or prevalence of coral disease through scuba diving activity (Lamb et al., 2014)), these include changes in behavioural patterns, impairing critical biological functions that could threaten the long-term survival of the species (Barnett et al., 2016; French et al., 2017; Parsons, 2012). An increase in tourism activity can therefore not only harm the species but also cause economic losses in the local communities, obliterating the argument for their conservation.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Critical Perspectives on Ecotourism. Socio-Economic and Social Impacts of Marine Ecotourism on the Wellbeing of Local Communities
University of Leeds  (School of Earth and Environment)
Critical Perspectives on Environment and Development
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Ecotourism, Marine Ecotourism, Socio-Economic and Social Impacts, Megafauna, Marine Protected Areas, MPAs, Marine Resources, Community Development
Quote paper
Giulia Isabelle Neuhaus (Author), 2020, Critical Perspectives on Ecotourism. Socio-Economic and Social Impacts of Marine Ecotourism on the Wellbeing of Local Communities, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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