Conservation or Commodification? The Case for Sustainable Tourism

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Conservation can be a tricky concept to come to terms with, as it has different meanings to different people. Preservationists believe conservation entails keeping pristine swathes of natural landscape rigidly protected, with minimal human contact. Conversely, zoologists understand conservation as maintaining a species, even if that means capturing wild animals in order to breed them in in a purely artificial ecosystem. While these two examples represent opposite ends of a conservation spectrum - completely untouched and entirely manipulated - there are ways to engage with nature that can benefit both society and the environment.


The classic example of nature that flourishes under human management is the Galapagos Islands. These islands, made famous by Darwin who found inspiration for his theory of evolution among the differentiated finch beaks, have been protected since 1959. The national park organization uses the fees from the permits to fund research and conservation measures. The management has inspired marine parks all over the world who control the amount of visitors, charge these visitors fees, and use the income to support the park activities. This strategy can be considered sustainable finance: defined as the ability to secure, stable financial resources in a way to cover the full costs of sustainable management of natural assets and biodiversity, and to ensure provision of benefits to local communities.


The definition of sustainable finance is a mouthful, but there are many important aspects to the term that are worth noting. Secure and stable resources are needed so that conservation can be upheld consistently, and not be dependent on a good season or falter in an economic recession. There should be resources to cover full costs of management of natural assets and biodiversity, essentially finance should be fulfilling conservation goals and properly managing the environment. And finally, perhaps most critically, benefits should be provided to communities and people living or working in and around the natural area.


So how do sustainable finance and marine conservation fit together?


Think back to the Galapagos Islands; marine tourism is the fuel that feeds conservation, and the high quality of protection and natural allure of the islands maintain high visitation numbers (there are often long waiting lists for permits). Benefits of the tourism are distributed among local stakeholders and Ecuadorian staff manage the park and marine reserve.


But utilizing tourism for financing conservation is not always successful. Criticisms focus on the ‘disney-fication’ of nature, where natural features and environments are commodified for purely financial gain. There is also concern when tourism itself can be inherently damaging to the environment and studies have found that sunscreen leaching from visitors can change the pH of water bodies. More seriously, visitors are not always respectful when they visit nature, and can damage coral by standing on it or taking pieces home as souvenirs. Care must be taken when designing environmental tourism to ensure these negative effects are minimized, and experts can help businesses create sustainable business models.


When done right, conservation management can provide dual benefits to society and the environment. Flourishing marine ecosystems draw in tourists who are then willing to pay more for the high quality of the experience. Beyond this revenue, consider the benefits that ripple beyond the boundaries of management; productive fisheries, carbon sequestration in the coral reefs, storm protection due to healthy coastal ecosystems... the list goes on!


Sea Going Green can help identify financial streams to benefit your company while also sustainably managing the natural ecosystems, ensuring the natural beauty and health of the environment (and keep your customers coming back). Contact us for more information on how you can #GoGreenForTheBigBlue.
And to learn more about sustainable finance for marine conservation, applied to the Caribbean region, I co-authored a report for Joint Natural Capital Committee that is freely available online here.



Information about the author

Ever since completing a double Bachelor’s in Communication Studies and Environmental Studies while overlooking the coast at University of California (Santa Barbara), Hanna has been interested in the role of communication to further scientific research. She has followed this drive throughout a Master’s in Environmental and Resource Management at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, a Communications internship at a sustainability consulting firm and now in her role as Junior Researcher at the Institute for Environmental Studies.


Hanna feels there is a need to study scientific concepts with societal relevance, and ensure findings are communicated to a wider audience. She is a part time blogger for Sea Going Green and writes to share her research insights and personal opinions on the marine environment and sustainable tourism.


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