Consider this: Coastal and marine tourism account for at least 50 percent of all global tourism. It’s the main economic engine for most coastal communities and small islands, everywhere from the Philippines to coastal Maine. A report from the Ocean Panel, a global initiative of world leaders established in 2018 to create a sustainable ocean economy, found that tourism comprises nearly half of the ocean economy’s $2.5 trillion in economic output, and the expectation is that will increase over time. That’s not to mention all the other ways we rely on the ocean, which feeds hundreds of millions of people every day and is the world’s largest carbon sink. The plankton that live there are responsible for more than half of all the oxygen we breathe. Plus, so many travelers rely on seaside experiences to escape, recenter, and restore ourselves.
Yet despite all the ways we depend on the planet’s largest ecosystem, much of the world’s oceans remain unprotected, and many unsustainable tourism practices like overtourism and poor trash management continue to degrade the very assets people pay to see, according to Ocean Panel experts. Conservation International, a U.S.-based environmental nonprofit, reports that marine species populations have plummeted by 50 percent over the last 40 years. For some island nations like the Maldives that are especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and coral bleaching, climate change remains a looming existential crisis.
Yet the tide of voices advocating for ocean protection seems to be rising. March 2023 saw the historic creation of the United Nations High Seas Treaty, which aims to protect marine biodiversity in international waters that lie beyond national jurisdiction. The goal is to protect 30 percent of the ocean by 2030. Travelers themselves are more invested than ever in saving it, with the establishment of such organizations as the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, a network of activist surfers, divers, and beach enthusiasts.
A brighter future for our oceans?
Peter Schuhmann, a professor of economics at University of North Carolina in Wilmington, believes that resilient tourism—defined by the Ocean Panel as environmental, cultural, and economic sustainability—remains an untapped solution for a sustainable ocean-based economy, and that travelers themselves are critical agents of change. They just need governments and industry leaders to create opportunities for them to do that.
“Studies show that travelers are demanding sustainable tourism options that align with their values,” he said on an Ocean Panel webinar in early 2023. “Tourists want to do their part, but we just have to give them the pathway.”
In late 2017, the Republic of Palau—an archipelago nation in Micronesia—established the first visitor policy of its kind with the Palau Pledge, where visitors are asked to sign a pledge to be ecologically and culturally responsible during their trip. Other nations have since followed suit, including New Zealand with its Tiaki Promise, where visitors pledge to be respectful stewards of the destination. In 2021, the state of Hawai‘i banned all sunscreen with oxybenzone and octinoxate that are deemed unsafe for marine environments, and it continues to partner with such organizations as the Coral Reef Alliance to protect and heal reef systems.
On the Caribbean island of Bonaire, the Bonaire National Marine Park is one of the region’s few marine protected areas that’s almost entirely financed by user fees—which, as of January 2023, are a blanket cost of $40 per person for nonresidents of Bonaire. Since the 1990s, Bonaire has been collecting its own data to determine what visitors are willing to pay for the benefit of accessing the park’s natural beauty, and that revenue supports the park. It’s a model that has been replicated in other island destinations, including Fiji, Indonesia, Hawai‘i, and Honduras.
More luxury hotels are embracing sustainable practices
A growing number of hotels and resorts in marine ecosystems are working to make their business models more resilient for the environment, for people and cultures, and for local economies. And these efforts are not at the expense of luxury: Some of the most design-forward retreats on the Indonesian island of Bali, which has a notoriously bad trash problem, are making sustainable hospitality fashionable. The island’s Potato Head Studios was built with woven recycled plastic ceilings and sleek terrazzo floors made from broken bricks and waste concrete. In January 2023, the design-forward Playa Viva in Mexico was recognized by the B Corporation nonprofit impact assessor for treading lightly on the environment and benefiting nearby communities. On the Island of Hawai‘i, Four Seasons Hualalai has a long list of sustainability and social impact measures. Impressively, it sources 75 percent of all food for the restaurant locally—no small feat in a destination where so much needs to be imported.
On the heels of a recent trip to the Maldives, Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan spoke to AFAR about his time in the Maldives, which is the world’s second most dependent nation on tourism; as a low-lying atoll, it remains especially susceptible to climate change.
While he acknowledges the impact of air travel to the Maldives and the infrastructure of building luxury lodges, he believes tourism will pave the way toward a solution in protecting the destination, as well as the ocean ecosystem as a whole.
He added that Six Senses Laamu, where he stayed, is doing cutting-edge research of coral restoration at the atoll level, rather than the more typical coral replanting programs that are harder to scale. Travelers can participate in sustainability programs, which range from volunteering with sea turtle work and reef restoration efforts. “The way the Six Senses is pivoting [in the Maldives] towards being both sustainable, but also being very ocean positive and reef positive, is certainly a model that others could use as well,” he said.
As more luxury resorts work to make sustainable hospitality a core part of our business, AFAR has identified 15 beach resorts around the world that are making waves with their efforts to become better custodians of the ocean habitats that they—and their visitors—depend on. Read on for our full list here.