People need coral reefs. They are home to the fish that provide food – and livelihoods – for 100 million people. They act as barriers against the worst impacts of storms, protecting communities, hotels and infrastructure. They also support high-value tourism in over 100 countries.
The Nature Conservancy has embarked on an ambitious project to persuade governments and industry to invest in their protection.
Their work is using the vast resources of social media, combined with more traditional mapping techniques to quantify for the first time the value of every one of the world’s coral reefs to tourism. This information will help to steer better management. It is only by understanding value that we will fully grasp our dependence on reefs and only with reliable data that we will be able to manage these precious resources. Scientists at The Nature Conservancy, along with the University of Cambridge, the World Resources Institute and the Natural Capital Project, have devised an entirely novel approach to filter and stratify the baseline tourism and travel information, and to pinpoint the exact value and location of reef-related tourism. To do so, however, they needed to break the barriers between traditional data-driven academic research and the emerging fields of crowd-sourced and social media-related data.
What this meant was turning to tourists to provide the data, through a combination of innovative datasets that included hotel rooms, general photographs, underwater photographs, dive centres and dive sites. Using these they were able not only to render and improve crude national statistics, but also to cross-validate their ideas with independent datasets – for example using hotel locations alongside photo-intensity to independently show tourist spread at national levels, and using dive-sites and locations of underwater photographs to show locations of coral reef visitation.
They found that 72 million trips are supported by the world’s coral reefs each year, making these fragile and beautiful organisms a powerful engine of coastal and marine tourism. In total they represent an economic value to the world of $36 billion each year. With such results, the Nature Conservancy has clearly proven the economic value of the coral ecosystems to tourism. Now they plan to expand their methods out to measure other forms of nature-based tourism. Those working to prove the value of sustainable tourism have long sought to get solid figures to back up their arguments. Thanks to the ground-breaking work of the Nature Conservancy, they may not have much longer to wait.