Diversifying Livelihoods

Tourism vessels at Laughing Bird Caye, Belize. Photo © Benedict Kim

Understanding the Local Tourism Sector and Identifying Opportunities for Diversifying Livelihoods

The pause on tourism caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the industry in most locations around the world. While government support and domestic tourism has softened the blow in some locations, the revival of the tourism sector is imperative for the economic recovery of some communities. However, with this tourism pause, there is also opportunity to address the issue of reliance on reef tourism for people’s livelihoods and security, and to explore other potential income revenues at sites that simultaneously support conservation. By doing this, a more resilient tourism economy can be built post COVID-19 pandemic that is better prepared to deal with environmental, societal, political, health-related, technological, or economic crises in the future. “If the system is resilient, it is implicit that it has the ability not only to overcome crises and disasters but to better adapt to change overall” (Prayag 2018).

The 2021 Solution Exchange examined several case studies from around the world and opportunities for diversifying livelihoods at Resilient Reefs Initiative sites.

Key Takeaways

  • Policy makers should consider opportunities to improve access to tourism jobs and businesses for First Nations communities, who bring an essential perspective but who face a range of barriers to entry such as the cost of insurance or assets.
  • COVID-19 created enabling conditions for local entrepreneurs. It was an incredible natural experiment in unlocking local entrepreneurship in some regions, from a shift to regenerative agriculture in Bali to burgeoning micro-industries developing natural products in Belize.
  • “Communities need a hand up not a hand-out”. Core components of community tourism include operations that are owned, led, and run by communities themselves. This empowers communities, bringing income to individuals and families (instead of large corporations), and increases capacity and develops new skills.
  • Create opportunities that reduce or remove pressure on natural resources. Rather than just shifting from one kind of reef tourism to another kind of reef tourism—those livelihoods are both dependent on the same natural resource and therefore equally vulnerable to the same kinds of shocks—efforts should be made to develop new livelihood and income opportunities that are truly independent from reef assets and more sustainable.
  • Focus on tourism activities that have minimal impact to the environment and high value to the user. It may not be possible to completely shift away from a dependence on reefs for livelihoods. One potential way to reduce pressure on the system is to analyze the impact and profitability of different reef tourism activities with a focus on low impact, high value options. Adding value to a tourist experience that takes pressure off the reef is another option.
  • Public and private sector partnerships are critical. They can help assess, identify, and drive new opportunities for innovation in diversifying livelihood options.

Spotlight on Belize

How can we diversify local livelihoods and reduce pressures on natural resources?

Mar Coast Belize Alamina

Photo © Marcus Alamina

The Belize Barrier Reef, which gained UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1996, is 300 km long and is part of a 900 km long system known as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. Its coral reefs and mangroves have been valued at US$150-$190 million per year in tourism, US$14-$16 million per year in fisheries and US$231-$347 million per year in shoreline protection benefits (Cooper et al. 2008).

Belize stakeholders would like to create opportunities that remove pressure on natural resources. COVID-19 decimated the tourism industry in Belize, initially rendering the national economic activity at a standstill, highlighting the need for income diversification efforts. Many who relied on income from tourism returned to subsistence fishing. The pause in tourism has also unlocked local entrepreneurship especially among local women. The creation of Belize-based products has given birth to a new wave of small businesses and the utilization of online platforms to supplement income generation.

Additionally, reef managers of the Belize Barrier Reef System have recognized this pause in tourism as an opportunity to redefine sustainable tourism standards as well as reevaluate carrying capacities of heavily visited marine areas.

How can we ensure sustainability of a diversified livelihood option that does not rely on the original resource base? What needs to be considered for this type of behavioral change? Our research shows that the most successful options are when the livelihood is diversified around the same resource base (a resource that is already considered to be vulnerable). – Safira Vasquez, Ministry of Blue Economy


Watch the presentations by Solution Exchange experts in English or French to learn more:

Regenerative Agriculture: New Tourism Opportunities – Stephen Box, Marine Ecologist


Uplifting Communities through Tourism – Jamie Sweeting, Planeterra


Finding Ways to Help Indigenous Businesses Flourish – Henrietta Marrie, Aboriginal Australian Leader

Une agriculture qui se renouvelle: de nouvelles opportunités touristiques – Stephen Box, Marine Ecologist


Des communautés plus fortes grâce au tourisme – Jamie Sweeting, Planeterra


Trouver des moyens d'aider les entreprises des populations autochtones à prospérer – Henrietta Marrie, Aboriginal Australian Leader

Advancing Sustainable Tourism Strategies

The Solution Exchange was intended to inspire thinking, bring together the Resilient Reefs Initiative managers and partners for knowledge exchange and learning, and help catalyze action on the ground. While no specific next steps for diversification of livelihoods were outlined, a more encompassing approach to develop a sustainable tourism framework was discussed. Identified next step: 

Develop a sustainable tourism strategy framework for reef communities.

The Solution Exchange explored various components of sustainable tourism strategies—providing examples of a range of different tools and techniques. A potential next step is to integrate these components and develop a sustainable tourism strategy framework for reef communities, something that does not currently exist. Further consultation with sites and partners is required to better understand both the demand and target audience for this kind of framework.

Tourism-based Coral Reef Restoration

REEFhabilitation LogoThe Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean Division, in partnership with the Booking Cares Fund, has developed the REEFHabilitation experience to promote successful coral reef restoration through sustainable tourism. The REEFhabilitation experience provides a hands-on learning adventure for tourists to actively participate in coral restoration, and is being piloted in the Dominican Republic with Fundemar and Grupo Puntacana Foundation. All materials to support this tourism experience are publicly available for others who wish to start sustainable tourism-operated coral reef restoration projects using restoration best practices.

REEFHabilitation Experience Instructional Guide in English and Spanish
REEFHabilitation Brochure
Video in English, Spanish, and Italian
Tourism Underwater Datasheets for Nursery, Outplanting, and Restoration monitoring

GBRF 2This content was developed in collaboration
with Great Barrier Reef Foundation.


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