Ecotourism in the Face of Sustainability Challenges

This post was written by Karen Barnett, SEMBA ’17

I am 40 feet below sea level at a coral reef site in the Bahamas, unsettled by the scene in front of me. Surrounded by marine life, 11 other tourists, and our scuba diving guides, I first notice one diver’s fins scrape the reef below as he attempts to steady himself. To my right, a diving guide taps a stingray so that the animal will swim away to the visitors’ delight. Another tourist feeds the fish, with feed sold directly from the dive shop.

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” These guidelines stand in contrast to my diving experience, soliciting tourists to enter nature as an observer, not an actor. The same way we don’t visit a national park and expect the weather to perfectly accommodate our schedule, we should not expect wildlife to show themselves for our entertainment.

“How much responsibility do businesses profiting from the natural environment have to enact ecotourism principles in their business models?”

How much responsibility do businesses profiting from the natural environment have to enact ecotourism principles in their business models? A great deal if they want their businesses to thrive in the future.

Local dive shops will close down if they do not protect what drives their profits: a healthy underwater ecosystem. This may be years off, but businesses with an eye on fiscal sustainability will note the importance of environmental sustainability at the dive sites.

Coral reefs around the world are dying off. Australia knows this problem more than most countries. The Great Barrier Reef contributes billions of dollars to the country’s economy. Yet, in 2016, about two-thirds of shallow water coral died. Though diving is not the main cause of this massive die-off, local dive shops and large companies like PADI and Scuba Diving International need to do everything in their power to cause minimal harm to these ecosystems.

Research shows that fish abundance and coral coverage diminish significantly at coral sites with high human impact. Unfortunately, divers with more experience are just as likely to interact with the environment as newer divers. However, a study showed that this trend can turn around with a simple educational conservation briefing from the dive master before jumping into the water.

Smaller dive shops need to worry about a highly competitive market. It is no surprise that their principal concern, particularly in developing countries, is customer satisfaction to ensure positive ratings and consistent visitors. Larger certification companies, like PADI, on the other hand, have the power to enact change. With the most reach and influence behind them, they hold the power to truly protect the coral sites. These companies do support ecotourism values on their websites and in the initial certification process. However, they clearly do not do enough to hold small dive shops accountable and properly educate divers to understand the severity of the issue. My experience in the Bahamas does not stand alone, as these practices are rampant throughout the world.

Undoubtedly, coral decay is a major environmental issue. I believe large certification companies should problem solve this as a business issue as well. Without a sustainable ecosystem, the scuba industry — and other tourism businesses — cannot live far into our future.