Securing a Future for Coastal and Marine Tourism • Stimson Center

Coastal and marine tourism, a key sector under threat

The health of the marine environment and the services its ecosystems provide are at the heart of ocean and coastal tourism and underpin the blue economies of communities around the world. Every year, millions of tourists seek coral reefs, crystal clear waters, sandy beaches and colorful marine life in coastal countries and small island states. The blue tourism industry (which is distinguished according to whether the activities take place on land or at sea) represents 5% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) and almost 7% of world employment.1AH Bhuiyan, A. Darda, W. Habib and B. Hossain, “Marine Tourism for Sustainable Development in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh”, Asian Development Bank Institute Working Paper 1151 (2020). The economic benefits of these tourism dollars extend far beyond the coastline. For example, direct expenditures for coral reef-related activities (i.e. snorkeling and scuba diving) have been estimated at US$19 billion per year; however, an additional $16 billion per year has been linked to “reef-adjacent” tourism, including “the reefs’ role in generating clear, calm waters and beach sand, exceptional views, seafood fees and even their widespread use in advertising”.2M. Spalding, L. Burke, SA Wood, J. Ashpole, J. Hutchison, and P. Ermgassen, “Mapping the Global Value and Distribution of Coral Reef Tourism,” Shipping policy 82 (2017 Jan): 104–13, 10.1016/j.marpol.2017.05.014. These ocean-based tourism industries are the starting point for commercial supply chains that, although usually concentrated locally, can reach the world. In 2019, tourists to Pacific island countries (Oceania) had a total economic impact of $142 billion. In the same year, the economic impact of maritime tourism in the geographically much smaller Caribbean was $48 billion, or 14% of the total Caribbean economy.3World Travel & Tourism Council, “Economic Impact Reports,” 2021,

Yet the places in and along the coastline that support such vibrant tourism economies are invariably at risk from the adverse effects of climate change. Rising ocean temperatures and acidity, increasingly severe storms and rising sea levels are all impacting maritime tourism. However, the threats do not stop at the coast. Unsustainable tourism, aging infrastructure and often the people who provide support services can cause unintended threats along coastal areas as well as in surrounding communities; overpopulation due to unplanned development, environmental degradation, pollution and polluted runoff can put pressure on and damage marine resources and the places they support.4Bhuiyan et al., “Marine Tourism for Sustainable Development”. The strength and resilience of the blue economy is inextricably linked to the geographies, people and natural resources that surround it.

Read the full essay with The High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) here.

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