The Caribbean Needs Tourism, and Tourism Needs Healthy Coral Reefs
AI and social media are helping quantify the economic value of coral reefs
The Caribbean region is more dependent on tourism than any other region in the world—the sector accounts for over 15 percent of GDP and 13 percent of jobs in the region. And almost all visitors to the Caribbean take part in some activity that relates to coral reefs—either directly, like snorkeling and scuba diving, or indirectly, like enjoying sandy beaches, eating fresh seafood and swimming in crystal waters. That means the health of the Caribbean’s tourism industry—and thus the whole regional economy—is dependent on the health of its coral reefs.
But just how much value do reefs produce? After all, “what gets measured gets managed and improved.” The Nature Conservancy (TNC) recently released the results of a study that focused on reef-adjacent activities and the value they generate for the tourism industry, island governments and Caribbean communities. This study, which builds on an earlier body of globally focused research produced by TNC, found that reef-adjacent activities alone generate an estimated $5.7 billion per year in the Caribbean from roughly 7.4 million visitors. When combined with reef-dependent tourism activities, they generate $7.9 billion total from roughly 11 million visitors.
In other words, a major draw for people traveling to the Caribbean are activities related to coral reef ecosystems, and both the tourism industry and other aspects of the local economies depend on healthy coral reefs to keep this relationship afloat. This evidence offers a pivotal opportunity for advancing coral conservation initiatives not only in the Caribbean but around the world, as it can catalyze both the tourism industry and local governments and communities to invest in protecting and restoring coral reefs for the benefit of economies and incomes.
We now know that these natural wonders are responsible for generating billions of dollars, sustaining livelihoods and anchoring economies in the Caribbean as well as other tropical destinations across the globe. And that should translate into a major incentive to conserve them.
Equally remarkable is the method by which this information came to light. The study, led by The Nature Conservancy, with support from JetBlue, the World Travel & Tourism Council and Microsoft, merged contemporary culture with modern science by using artificial intelligence to analyze social media content. Social media platforms provide valuable insight into how the general public spends their recreational time and, importantly, their discretionary income. Machine-learning algorithms, a type of artificial intelligence, allow computers to autonomously make determinations based on learned information.
Using algorithms developed by the Microsoft Cognitive Services Computer Vision API, the study analyzed over 86,000 social images and nearly 6.7 million social text posts for visual and language identifiers that indicated reef-adjacent activities, such as white beaches, turquoise waters, reef fish and sea turtles, which were then selected according to geotags indicating proximity to a reef of 30 kilometers or less. The social media metrics derived using artificial intelligence were integrated with traditionally sourced data, like visitor center surveys, tourism business sales figures and government-reported economic data, to produce estimated reef-adjacent economic values for 32 Caribbean countries and territories.
The study produced vital information about the connection of specific islands and the entire region to reef-related tourism. Key findings include:
- The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico benefit from visitor expenditure of over $1 billion per year directly linked to coral reefs.
- The Bahamas, Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico receive the equivalent of over 1 million visitor trips per year directly linked to coral reefs.
- The top 10 percent highest-value reefs generate over $5.7 million and 7,000 visitors per square kilometer per year. These reefs are scattered in almost every country and territory with the exception of Haiti. Barbados, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have a large proportion of high-value reefs, each with an average expenditure value of over $3 million per square kilometer per year.
- The countries most dependent on reef-adjacent tourism include many small developing island states like Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Bermuda, St. Kitts & Nevis and St. Martin, where there may be relatively few options for earning income outside of reef-associated tourism.
- Only 35 percent of reefs throughout the Caribbean are not used by the tourism sector, indicating that there are scarce options for movement of reef-associated activities to new areas. Most of those not used for tourism are in remote locations.
The Caribbean needs tourism, and tourism needs healthy coral reefs—and the findings from this study, which shine a spotlight on the pervasive dependence on reefs in almost every corner of the region, suggest that this would hold true for any region in the world that has similar reliance on its natural environments to sustain tourism, livelihoods and economies.
In a world where coral reefs are at grave risk due to climate change, overfishing, pollution and other threats, the tourism sector and the people that depend on it grow more vulnerable. There is urgency, and armed with the information on the economic value of coral reefs revealed in this study, the tourism industry, and governments and communities in tourism-dependent areas, are motivated to invest in the protection and restoration of these essential ecosystems. Understanding this equation and its significance makes us smarter in the global fight to protect and restore nature.