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Why the travel and tourism industry should care about the state of the ocean

A healthy ocean is the foundation of the enormous coastal tourism industry.

A healthy ocean is the foundation of the enormous coastal tourism industry. Image: Unsplash/Elizeu Dias

Hanh Nguyen
Ocean Industries Lead, World Economic Forum Geneva
Joseph Martin Cheer
Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Heritage, Western Sydney University
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Davos Agenda

  • Coastal and marine tourism accounts for over 50% of global tourism and is the largest economic sector for many small island developing states.
  • A healthy ocean is the foundation of this enormous worldwide industry but faces significant stressors such as pollution and biodiversity loss.
  • Putting a thriving ocean at the heart of decision-making is, therefore, key for the travel and tourism industry to develop in a sustainable manner.

Coastal and marine tourism represents at least 50% of total global tourism – a $9.5 trillion revenue industry that generates every 1 in 11 jobs. Indeed, for many small island developing states, it is their largest economic sector.

And yet, the very foundation on which this massive industry and its supply chain relies on - a healthy ocean - is subject to myriad stressors, undermining the sector’s very existence.

The Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosure recently launched its final recommendations, calling on companies to assess, disclose and manage their impact and dependency on nature.

The economic success of the travel and tourism sector, both now and in the future, is heavily dependent on the ecosystem nature provides.

Coastal tourism depends on a healthy and resilient ocean

Coastal tourism relies on a healthy ocean to provide clean water and beautiful coastlines.

As a backdrop for activities such as diving, snorkelling, and whale and dolphin watching, the ocean generates significant revenues for destination communities and enriches travel experiences for nature lovers.

However, this will only be possible when the ocean continues to thrive, supporting abundant and stable marine life. A healthy ocean also effectively regulates the climate, absorbing 25% of carbon dioxide emissions and 90% of excess heat.

Needless to say, a stable climate is conducive to tourism. Across the headlines this Northern Hemisphere summer, extreme temperatures and wildfires have evidently disrupted the sector with catastrophic economic and social impacts.

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Conversely, the tourism and travel industry arguably contributes considerably to marine biodiversity loss and ocean pollution.

The increasing alteration of the coastlines to make way for hotel and resort development and the carbon-intensive nature of air and cruise travel have contributed to habitat destruction and ocean acidification, with considerable damage to marine ecosystems.

Tourism and its supply chain operations are also massive generators of plastics that pollute the ocean. This is especially visible in coastal areas that suffer from overtourism.

And yet, less than 25% of tourism-sector companies acknowledge the industry's pressure on coastal and marine biodiversity, according to the latest survey by One Ocean Foundation.

The coastal tourism sector is identified as a key sector where accelerated investments and transformation are needed to help unlock the potential of the ocean as a source of solutions to climate change and achieve the Ocean Breakthroughs, launched recently on the occasion of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Leaders Forum and in the run-up to COP28.

It is time that the travel and tourism sector understand their impact as well as their dependency on the services that the ocean freely provides and take action to contribute towards a resilient, nature-positive and net-zero future.

Benefits of marine ecosystem conservation and restoration

A World Bank 2021 study showed that every dollar of public investment in protected areas and nature-based tourism delivers at least $6 in return. Tourism in protected areas also generates significant income multipliers.

For instance, Marine protected areas (MPAs) encourage nature-based tourism, a rapidly growing sub-sector predicted to generate $665 billion annually by 2030. It is, therefore, not just in governments’ interest to invest in ecosystem protection and restoration but the private sector, too.

A company can contribute directly to conserving marine ecosystems where they operate. For example, the luxury hotel chain Six Senses contributed to the designation of eco-rich areas consisting of interconnected coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass meadows in Laamu Atoll, the Maldives, as MPAs.

These MPAs enhance the beauty of the landscape where Six Senses Laamu is located, creating a mosaic of blue hues, while secretly fighting climate change and offering coastal protection.

Six Senses CEO Neil Jacobs, also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Sustainable Tourism, insists that “it’s not just about spending on sustainability in the hotel, it’s about going outside of the hotel”.

The livelihoods and well-being of coastal communities are intimately tied to ocean and shoreline health. Thus, the establishment of MPAs and the conservation and restoration of mangroves that provide a buffer against climate change effects and flood protection, amongst others, is an essential way in which community resilience can be bolstered.

In other instances, tourism businesses can indirectly support marine conservation and restoration by investing in innovation and technology that accelerate ocean health, such as the UpLink Ocean challenge, supported by Iberostar Group and Marriott International.

New business models needed to stem ocean health decline

The past year has witnessed significant strides towards sustainable ocean governance in international fora, from the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework’s commitment to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030 to the adoption of the High Seas Treaty that seeks to regulate international waters beyond national jurisdictions, and the recent progress in the negotiations of the Plastic Treaty.

Businesses that rely on the ocean must help put global frameworks into action. They must embrace transition pathways, away from an extractive mindset that sees the ocean as a source of unlimited bounty and a receptacle for sea dumping to a regenerative ocean mindset.

Developing hotels, resorts and living shorelines that leverage nature-based solutions rather than hard-edged engineering solutions can be effective in hazard mitigation and adaptation, given that coastal infrastructures are increasingly threatened by sea level rise.

An increasing number of coastal hotels and resorts are setting out to address their rampant use of plastics and opt for refillable or biodegradable packaging from food-sourced materials. Reducing disposable amenities also means that hotels can save expenses for their removal.

In countries where tap water is not readily drinkable, some hotels also look at solutions to purify their water instead of solely relying on bottled water supply.

For example, theTransforming Tourism Value Chains project led by the UN Environment Programme has supported tourism businesses in small developing island states in this endeavour.

Tourism industry must act to reduce pollution and waste

Tackling pollution from sewage and wastewater is another step in the right direction, according to the Ocean Panel. The global cruise tourism industry, particularly, has received considerable critique about their impact, ranging from discharging oil bilge water to dumping untreated sewage into the ocean.

Industry-wide change to address this issue is much needed, with examples such as the waste-to-energy at sea initiative recently debuted by the Royal Caribbean Group.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Reducing seafood loss and waste on cruise ships and in coastal hotels and resorts is an important contribution to ocean health. As the ocean is suffering from overfishing, companies can do their part in reversing this decline by sourcing fish responsibly while raising customers’ awareness about the issue of food waste.

As the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy argues, “putting a healthy ocean at the heart of decision-making is essential so that effective protection, sustainable production and equitable prosperity go hand-in-hand to benefit people, nature and the economy”. The travel and tourism sector cannot prosper without a thriving ocean.

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