How to finance marine conservation without harming local communities

Threatened by overfishing, marine megafauna – such as sharks, rays and turtles – are among the world’s most threatened species groups. Somewhat paradoxically, these species also have widespread appeal.

Tourist activities such as scuba diving add significant economic value to these species. One study estimates global manta ray tourism at US$140 million (£116 million) a year.

Marine tourism is often promoted as a more conservation-friendly substitute for unsustainable fishing. However, despite its value, marine tourism rarely contributes directly to conservation. The economic value of these species is typically diverted from the tourism industry and rarely goes directly into conservation efforts.

A diver at the bottom of the ocean looking up at a large manta ray
Tourist activities such as scuba diving, have significant economic value for endangered species.
hollie booth, Author provided (no reuse)

In contrast, coastal communities that depend on marine megafauna for food and income are rarely well positioned to benefit from marine tourism.

And subject to restrictive regulations, the costs of marine conservation are often borne by these communities as well. For example, one study estimated that catch limits for endangered shark species could cost low-income Indonesian fishermen up to 17.6% of their annual income.

A “recipient pays” approach

A potential solution to this injustice is a conservation approach where the beneficiary pays.

A fee is charged here by tourists or tourist-oriented companies. Proceeds are then invested in community-based conservation projects that provide coastal communities with the resources to facilitate conservation while supporting their livelihoods.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I examined the feasibility of this approach.

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Using an online survey of people with a general interest in travel, we determined the willingness of international marine tourists to pay for community-based shark conservation. The participants were presented with a scenario where they were in a tropical beach destination. They were also informed of a nearby community that relies heavily on catching endangered sharks.

Given this scenario, participants were asked about the maximum amount they would pay for a marine conservation fee. The fee, added to the price of marine activities, would directly compensate local fishermen for reducing their catch of endangered shark species.

By combining average willingness to pay per person with market data from two popular Indonesian vacation destinations — Lombok and Pulau Weh, both home to several endangered shark species — we estimated how much conservation revenue could be generated annually.

Broad support for city taxes

Our results show broad support for city taxes.

Respondents were willing to pay an average of US$10 to US$15 (£8.25 to £12.37) per person per day for community-based marine conservation projects.

This equates to US$2.3–6.8 million (£1.9–5.6 million) per year in Lombok and US$300,000–900,000 (£247,000–742,000) per year in Pulau Weh in potential revenue for coastal communities. The lower estimate is based on a levy of US$10 per day and 1 day of marine activity per tourist, the upper estimate is based on a levy of US$15 per day and 2 days of marine activity per tourist.

This revenue exceeds the estimated cost of community-based shark conservation in nearby fisheries. Pilot projects compensating fishermen for releasing critically endangered species are already underway in these communities, with some early successes.

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direct investment

Marine tourism is an underexploited source of income for marine conservation. However, the financing mechanisms must be designed accordingly.

Respondents in our study expressed strong preferences for funding environmental NGOs or direct payments to local communities. There was less support for paying a levy to national or local governments. For marine tourism levies to be successful, the revenue must be openly distributed to locally run projects.

Our research also revealed that travelers’ willingness to pay depends on their vacation budget. Therefore, conservation revenues can be higher in luxury destinations and much lower in budget destinations. This underlines the need to adapt mechanisms to local circumstances and markets.

We would also suggest based on our results that offering marine conservation information at the point of sale may not be necessary. We found that existing pro-environmental behavior led to a higher willingness to pay. Providing information on shark conservation issues immediately prior to the survey had little impact on participants’ willingness to pay.

Over 80% of respondents also agreed that they would be more likely to purchase goods and services from environmentally conscious tourism companies. This raises the possibility that companies that include conservation levies in their prices may even be seen as more attractive by customers.

Reef areas attract about 70 million tourists annually. If every tourist is willing to pay as little as US$10 (£8.25) per trip, marine tourism levies could raise at least US$700m (£580m) annually for marine conservation, thereby ensuring that the vulnerable Coastal communities do not bear the full cost.

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Marine tourism levies can become an important funding mechanism to achieve global biodiversity goals and close the gap between the costs and benefits of marine conservation. But only if they are designed correctly. Tourism businesses, governments, NGOs and coastal communities have the opportunity to build partnerships to ensure the potential of marine tourism taxes is realised.

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