Models to Manage Tourism

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

Identifying and Managing Tourism Using Models

Understanding and monitoring optimal ecological, social, and economic conditions at a reef site enhances sustainable tourism objectives. Both the optimal number of tourists and the number of tourists that represents a threshold when conditions (e.g., tourist experiences, environmental conditions) have declined is not a specific/single number, but rather a range of numbers that vary based on circumstances (e.g., location, season, durability of the resource). The acceptable ranges and thresholds for these conditions will vary site to site and over time shifting with the changing health and condition of the reef and reef communities.

A note on terminology: The concept of “carrying capacity” is outdated and impractical. Calculating a capacity based on a maximum number of tourists at a given site is at odds with tourism behavior (i.e., not all tourists act the same) and the resilience of the environment to tourism impacts, which is also variable. For this reason, there are very few examples of successful carrying capacity in practice. Nonetheless, we found that the term carrying capacity is entrenched amongst many marine managers and still used when discussing managing tourist numbers at reef sites. Therefore, the term carrying capacity was used during the Resilient Reefs Initiative Solution Exchange on sustainable tourism to discuss how monitoring ecological, social, and economic impacts of tourist use is critical to improving management.

Negative impacts from tourism can include:

  • Ecological: Environmental degradation of physical resources (water, soil, or air) or disturbance of ecological features such as wildlife, corals, coastal vegetation, and dunes
  • Social: Social crowding, conflict, and loss of core community values and amenities
  • Economic: Infrastructure over-utilization, reduced business profitability and capability to reinvest in continual improvement, and a shift in tourism markets from ecotourists to mass tourists who have lower environmental sensitivity and preparedness to pay for sustainable management

Key takeaways from the Solution Exchange on sustainable tourism and recordings of presentations by experts are below. Asterisk (*) sentences are additional takeaways identified by additional experts after the event.

Key Takeaways

  • Engage stakeholders across sectors early and often to work toward effectively managing tourist numbers. Achieving sustainable tourism goals requires an alignment of values from the different sectors, which is extremely challenging. Working together from the beginning, instead of bringing stakeholders in later in the conversation, is critical for buy-in.
  • Tourism management models work best in conjunction with other supporting interventions such as education to influence tourist behaviors, responsive restoration of impacted areas, infrastructure improvements that reduce visitor contact with the resource, and, when necessary, enforcement.
  • Identify tourist hotspots and reduce impacts where possible. Many tourist destinations have hotspots where visitation and use are intensified. Intensified pressure can be reduced through an array of methods (e.g., reducing contact between the tourist and the sensitive areas, developing and marketing lower significance sacrificial tourist hotspots and closing access to the higher significance sites, or developing substitution experiences at other locations).
  • Reduce tourist pressure at specific sites by appropriately pricing the experience. Another method to reduce tourist pressure is through dynamic pricing – a pricing strategy in which businesses set flexible prices based on current market demands. The more something costs the more it is appreciated, and the higher the proportion of respectful tourists make up the mix. *Managers need to be mindful that high prices can lead to inequities and should also include differential pricing (e.g., local prices, off-peak prices, fee-free days), so underserved people within communities are not priced out.
  • Encourage communication between local developers/planners and marine managers to increase the sustainability of tourism. Greater communication between jurisdictions and authorities helps build shared understanding that bridges gaps between differing objectives.
  • Develop a cooperative action plan instead of a Visitor Use Management Plan. A comprehensive Visitor Use Management Plan can take years to develop; it can result in stakeholder fatigue and agencies can get a reputation for being too bureaucratic and not nimble enough to address immediate needs and/or changing circumstances. One mitigation method is to develop a cooperative action plan. This 1-year plan is a non-binding agreement that is updated every couple of years.
  • *Introduce an integrated monitoring and adaptive management system. When monitoring reveals trends and relationships, and when this is shared among stakeholders, there is a basis for shared understanding and trust, which in turn permits the introduction of adaptive management. Adaptive management is a collection of responses prepared and representing varying levels of intervention to reflect varying levels of an impact or issue. Each indicator being monitored is given a suite of potential adaptive management responses, and a group of stakeholders jointly select one when monitoring suggests it is needed. If the response works, it can be scaled back and even removed.

Spotlight on Ningaloo

How can we adaptively manage tourist numbers to reduce impacts at our site?

Whale shark Joel Johnsson

Photo © Joel Johnsson

Hugging the western edge of Australia, Ningaloo Reef is one of the longest fringing coral reefs in the world. The Ningaloo Coast was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2011. It is an iconic attraction for domestic and international travelers visiting Western Australia (WA), with a thriving tourism industry based around the reef and coastline, which adds approximately AU$110 million to the local economy each year. Tourism at Ningaloo is seasonal, the region swells from about 3,000 permanent residents to hosting up to 20,000 visitors at any one time during the peak winter months. This influx stresses the ecological, social, and economic systems. Ningaloo’s stakeholders were particularly interested in learning about potential management frameworks for operationalizing assessments so they can adaptively respond to tourist numbers and impacts. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted Ningaloo in unforeseen ways. Ningaloo tourism increased during the pandemic and the demographic of tourists changed. The WA state closed its borders so no international tourists or Australians from other states could enter. The pandemic also made it difficult for WA residents to leave the state and return. In doing this, WA avoided the worst impacts of COVID-19, with relatively few cases occurring in the state. Consequently, there were fewer out-of-state tourists and WA residents who would normally travel overseas or to other parts of the country vacationed locally. Despite retaining the already high levels of visitation, the demographic of visitors to Ningaloo changed, resulting in increased rates of recreational fishing and lower utilization of local tours.

One of the things we hear consistently is that residents and users at Ningaloo are really concerned about the numbers of people visiting and the impacts that those people have on the values – not just ecological values but also the social and cultural values here at Ningaloo. – Joel Johnsson, Chief Resilience Officer, Ningaloo


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

Visitor Capacities based on Social Impact – Doug Whittaker, Confluence Research and Consulting

Coastal Visitor Use and Impact Monitoring – Abby Sisneros-Kid, Utah State University

Sustainable Solutions to Contemporary Challenges in Managing Human Recreational Use of Coral Reef Ecosystems – Mark Orams, Auckland University of Technology

Carrying Capacity – Sally Harman, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

Evaluation de la capacité de charge basée sur l'impact social – Doug Whittaker, Confluence Research and Consulting

Suivi des usages et impact des visiteurs sur le littoral – Abby Sisneros-Kid, Utah State University

Solutions durables aux défis contemporains de gestion des usages récréatifs des écosystèmes de récifs coralliens – Mark Orams, Auckland University of Technology

Échange de solutions - Capacité de charge – Sally Harman, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

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. Toward that end, here is the potential next step that was identified during discussion around tourism numbers and their management:

Engage experts in developing studies that integrate social, ecological, managerial, and economic assessments of tourist numbers and behaviors, and their associated impacts at sites.

There is currently no “gold standard” example of an integrated model to manage tourist numbers in the reef space. For RRI sites to accomplish this holistic approach effectively, they will need to design something new, with the support of social, ecological, and economic experts. Watch this space as RRI managers at Ningaloo have begun scoping a local integrated study.

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