Published on Voices

Sustainable tourism can drive the blue economy: Investing in ocean health is synonymous with generating ocean wealth

A snorkeler explores a coral reef in the coastal waters of Micronesia. © Ami Vitale

Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries, contributing trillions of dollars to the global economy and supporting the livelihoods of an estimated one in ten people worldwide. In many countries, with both developing and well-developed economies, tourism is appropriately viewed as an engine of economic growth, and a pathway for improving the fortunes of people and communities that might otherwise struggle to grow and prosper.

Much of that tourism depends on the natural world—on beautiful landscapes and seascapes that visitors flock to in search of escape, a second wind, and a direct connection with nature itself. Coastal and marine tourism represents a significant share of the industry and is an important component of the growing, sustainable Blue Economy, supporting more than 6.5 million jobs—second only to industrial fishing. With anticipated global growth rates of more than 3.5%, coastal and marine tourism is projected to be the largest value-adding segment of the ocean economy by 2030, at 26%.

Regions like the Caribbean, which is strongly dependent on tourism for their economic growth and well-being, as well as other regions like Southeast Asia, are likely to benefit from this growth, particularly as more people in places like China and elsewhere have the means to travel abroad. Managing this growth well to ensure that the ecosystems that underpin tourism opportunities are sustained is going to be a key challenge. Capitalizing on this ‘ocean wealth’ will require a deliberate approach to shaping investment, through things like marine spatial planning, well-designed and funded marine managed areas, and new tools that help local communities and national governments alike make the best long-term decisions possible.

That nature is the foundation for much of the world’s tourism is clear—travelers are willing to pay a premium for a room with an ocean view, and words like “pristine,” “remote,” and “unspoiled” are frequently assigned to amenities like beaches, coral reefs, and panoramic seascapes. The dependency of the travel and tourism industry on a healthy environment goes much deeper than that, however. Not only does a reef provide entertainment value for seaside visitors, but it can deflect waves that cause erosion and reduce the risk of storm surges that can harm the industry’s bottom line.

Furthermore, science is telling us that mangroves and seagrass meadows are excellent at absorbing and storing carbon, reducing harmful emissions that cause climate change as well as serving as the nursery grounds for marine wildlife. And all of those coastal ecosystems produce fish that are a favorite on restaurant menus across the world and a source of food and livelihood for the poorest coastal communities

Clearly, nature contributes enormous value to tourism and other industries. But one of the challenges is knowing exactly where these benefits are produced in the first place. This knowledge can enable smarter investments in management and conservation actions that support both nature and the tourism businesses that support coastal economies.

The Nature Conservancy joined forces with the World Bank and other development partners in creating the Mapping Ocean Wealth (MOW) initiative, which provides exactly such information. A new MOW study published in the Journal of Marine Policy reveals that 70 million trips are supported by the world’s coral reefs each year, making these reefs a powerful engine for tourism. In total, coral reefs represent an astonishing $36 billion a year in economic value to the world. Of that $36 billion, $19 billion represents actual “on-reef” tourism like diving, snorkeling, glass-bottom boating and wildlife watching on reefs themselves. The other $16 billion comes from “reef-adjacent” tourism, which encompasses everything from enjoying beautiful views and beaches, to local seafood, paddleboarding and other activities that are afforded by the sheltering effect of adjacent reefs.

The impact of this new information is already being recognized. MOW data prominently features in a recently published World Bank report, Toward a Blue Economy: A Promise for Sustainable Growth in the Caribbean and in doing so, helped to shape new policy and investments across the region. Last month, Mapping Ocean Wealth received the 2017 Tourism for Tomorrow Innovation Award from the World Travel and Tourism Council.

In fact, there are more than 70 countries and territories across the world that have million dollar reefs—reefs that generate more than one million dollars per square kilometer. These reefs support businesses and people in the Florida Keys, Bahamas and across the Caribbean, Mexico, Indonesia, Australia, Maldives and Mauritius, to name a few.

© The Nature Conservancy

This knowledge matters—not just for the tourism industry, but for conservation, too. The old adage goes, ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure.’ Armed with concrete information about the value of these important natural assets, the tourism industry can start to make more informed decisions about the management and conservation of the reefs they depend on—and thus become powerful allies in the conservation movement.

We’re starting to see great examples of businesses that are investing directly in the health of reefs that they know support their business enterprises. For more than 10 years, the Misool Eco Resort in Indonesia has worked with local communities and invested in creating and managing a no-take marine protected area encompassing 828 square kilometers in Raja Ampat, a spectacularly biodiverse area within Indonesia’s West Papua province. Within this protected area, fish abundance and size has increased dramatically, with benefits for the coral reefs that surround the nearby islands.

The Conservancy’s Atlas of Ocean Wealth, and accompanying interactive mapping tool, serves as a valuable resource for managers and decision makers to drill down to determine not just the location of coral reefs or other important natural assets, but how much they’re worth, in terms of their economic value as well as fish production, carbon storage and coastal protection values. By revealing where benefits are produced and at what level, the MOW maps and tools can help businesses fully understand and make new investments in protecting the natural systems that underpin their businesses.

The concept of valuing nature isn’t a new one, but the detailed, targeted knowledge of the MOW initiative presents an opportunity for the travel and tourism industry to lead both in the private sector, institutionalizing the value of nature into business practices and corporate sustainability investments, and in the sustainability movement more broadly by capturing the business opportunities that exist when we realize that we need nature.

Visit to learn more about our innovative approach to enhancing coral reef management. Learn more about the World Bank's work on the blue economy.


Rob Brumbaugh

Director of Ocean Planning & Protection

Pawan Patil

Development banker, Harvard, Oxford and London School of Economics trained economist and serial social entrepreneur

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000