A person swimming in clear water wearing a  a snorkel mask and looking at the white coral.
A snorkeler explores a coral reef in Micronesia. © Ami Vitale


Coral Reef Tourism is worth $36 Billion to the Travel Industry and Host Nations Every Year

Arlington, Va.

A new study published in the Journal of Marine Policy finds that coral reefs generate $36 billion in global tourism value per year. Mapping the Global Value and Distribution of Coral Reef Toursim used traditional and academic research combined with unique “big data” and social media uploads to map, in high resolution, the full value of coral reefs to tourism, highlighting the incentive for sustainable reef management. 
Over 70 countries and territories have “million dollar reefs”, or reefs that generate approximately $1 million per square kilometer. These reefs are generating jobs, and critical foreign exchange earnings for many small island states that have few alternative sources of employment and income. “These million dollar reefs are like precious works of art. To have one in your back yard is of course a wonderful thing, but it needs to be taken care of,” said Dr. Mark Spalding, lead author of the report and Senior Scientist at The Nature Conservancy, and Honorary Research Fellow in Zoology, University of  Cambridge. One of the key elements of the study is to differentiate the value of many in-water activities – such as diving and glass-bottomed boat trips – from what the authors call reef-adjacent values. The latter are the often-overlooked benefits that coral reefs provide: calm, clear waters, stunning views, beautiful beaches and seafood. “Reef dependency is far, far greater than most people imagine,” says Dr. Spalding.  The study revealed that tourism is really only concentrated on 30% of the world’s coral reefs, with the rest being too difficult to reach. Despite this, there are valuable reefs almost everywhere, and world-wide, some 70 million trips each year can be attributed to coral reefs.  The study also mapped values at a very high resolution. “When we showed our maps to locals, we were thrilled to see that the model was working really well,” said Spalding.  “In fact, the data from our high resolution maps rivaled that of detailed data from visitor surveys.”  This work recently won the World Travel and Tourism Council’s prestigious Tourism for Tomorrow Innovation Award. It was in recognition, not only for the value of the output, but also for the innovative means through which it was developed. With national level tourism statistics as the starting point, the authors turned to big data and social media data. Data from 20 million public photos on the social media site Flickr were mined to assess the intensity of visits to specific locations and to help select only visits and spending near coral reefs. Additional public, big data like locations of underwater photographs, 4,000 dive centers, 15,000 dive sites and 125,000 hotels were used to further assess the proportion of tourism spending that can be attributed to coral reefs.  “This data is revolutionizing our view of the world,” says Spencer Wood, Senior Scientist at the Natural Capital Project. “We began with 20 million photographs uploaded by the public on Flickr. We mined this information to understand where people are going and we were even able to call out 9,000 underwater photographs taken around coral reefs world-wide.”  Threats to coral reefs are many and varied and there are growing concerns about the long-term future of coral reefs in a changing climate. “Of course there are concerns, however the process is not inevitable and no-one is talking about the sudden disappearance of reefs,” said Spalding. “Even if reefs lose some of their vigour they remain vibrant, astonishing places that will continue to attract millions of visitors. What we hope is that these same visitors can create the demand for the best possible management that, in turn, can give reefs their greatest chance of continued good health.”  Travel and tourism is arguably the world’s largest industry, and unsustainable tourism can be a threat to reefs, with the capacity to destroy the very attraction that brought visitors in the first place.  “If we can convince the industry to take notice, as they clearly should, our hope is they will step up and support better management of coastal ecosystems like coral reefs. It’s a sort of enlightened self-interest,” says Lauretta Burke,  report co-author, and Senior Associate at the World Resources Institute.  The authors hope that with this study they will be able to encourage and support the industry not only to act responsibly, but to take their case up to governments and planners to insist in the management of coral reefs to keep them in business and their staff securely employed.  FOR MORE INFORMATION: The full report, along with photos and other can be can be downloaded at www.nature.org/coralreeftourism  and an interactive site featuring maps and data from the report can be found at www.oceanwealth.org.     ###


The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.