Theoretically, it seems very easy to have a healthy reproductive sea turtle population side by side with beach tourism: The animals use the coastlines during the night and beach goers use them during the day. So what is the problem?
It is the kind of development that comes with tourism…
1 The “problem” with sea turtle conservation
Some features of sea turtles’ reproductive behavior and life cycle make them especially vulnerable to human threats. Above this, they make some aspects of their conservation particularly difficult. These features are among others:
- Temperature dependency: Nest temperatures around 29.5° C create a balanced ratio of males and females. With hotter temperatures, more embryos turn into females and with cooler temperatures, more embryos turn into males. Temperature extremes increase embryo mortality. It is crucial for the survival of sea turtles to keep sand temperatures constant at historical levels. This ensures a high incubation success and keeps the sex ratio that proved successful for a certain population throughout evolution.
- Hatchling orientation: As hatchlings use light cues to detect the ocean, they are prone to be attracted by artificial light sources instead of natural ones.
- Natal homing instinct: For reproduction, sea turtles return to their birthplace. With nest site selection being largely inflexible, any changes of the natal beach can threaten the survival of the dependent nesting population.
- Late sexual maturity: High mortalities during the initial life stages don’t affect a nesting population until decades later. Nesting activity on a beach stays seemingly constant until the generation that first suffered high mortalities should start to reproduce. With such a delay, conservation efforts are at risk to stay ineffective. Moreover, conservation programs must persist for a long time before the outcomes of the work can be seen.
There are various human-induced threats to the survival of sea turtles. These are:
- Commercial harvesting of adults, juveniles and eggs (legally and illegally)
- Accidental by-catch in trawls, gill nets or on fishing long-lines
- Pollution of the oceans, especially plastic bags that are mistaken for food
- Degradation and loss of marine habitats
- Degradation and loss of nesting habitats
- Artificial lighting from beachfront development
- Harassment of sea turtles during encounters with humans on land and in the water
- Boats and boat propellers causing injuries
- Non-native predators like dogs and raccoons
- Rising water levels and warmer sand temperatures through climate change
2 How sea turtles and tourism can be combined
Sea turtle tourism is mostly based on direct encounters between tourists and sea turtles and often involves an educational aspect. It can take place as volunteer involvement, visitor involvement and interpretation programs, educational trips for school groups and other groups, visits of rehabilitation centers, turtle watching tours and other non-harmful forms of tourism. Besides this, sea turtle organizations can receive benefits through their coexistence with tourism players if:
- possible impacts on sea turtles are minimized
- conservation measures are realized at the facilities and in the surroundings
- hotel guests are properly informed and encouraged to get involved in conservation
- direct funds are given to the organization, hotel guests are encouraged to donate
- tourism players advocate for sea turtle conservation and create a political lobby
In turn, tourism players can receive benefits from their coexistence with sea turtle organizations if:
- the popularity and touristic attractivity of the destination / tourism facility increases
- the reputation of the destination / tourism facility is enhanced
- the overall touristic demand is raised
- high-spending eco-tourists are attracted, or tourists are willing to pay higher prices
Under certain prerequisites, sea turtle conservation is highly compatible with tourism. Sea turtles are popular animals for wildlife encounters as they exert a certain fascination on people and are easily encountered in the water and on land during nesting and hatching season. Turtles are likely to be exploited for unsustainable uses by residents or suffer from inconsiderate tourism development if their potential for ecotourism and general tourism promotion is not taken advantage of. Governments are much more likely to protect nesting habitats if there is a significant potential for sea turtle tourism. Local tourism businesses and communities alike need economic incentives to protect sea turtles, because feelings of compassion and environmental concern are not sufficient to justify the compromises they might need to make. Good-practice sea turtle tourism is much less harmful to sea turtles than conventional tourism and can even lead to a net benefit for their conservation, if it initiates the protection of these animals on site. It should be established wherever viable. However, not all nesting beaches might have sufficient sea turtle activity to develop a profitable sea turtle tourism industry.
The coexistence of conventional tourism with sea turtle conservation within a confined space seems to naturally inherit a high conflict potential. While tourism requires a certain degree of infrastructure, human activity and modification of the natural environment, sea turtles are impacted by everything which goes beyond “natural”. If tourism happens without restrictions and regulations, sea turtles are likely to be harmed. However, regulations which are not accepted by the public are likely to affect tourist satisfaction and the overall attraction of a destination. This can be the case if the clientele is not ecotourism-oriented and does not have an interest in conservation and sea turtles. It must be kept in mind that even though sea turtles have a high tourism potential, not all beach-goers are willing or financially able to become part-time eco-tourists. This is an important consideration since ecotourism is mostly seen as a popular activity among holidaymakers from developed nations. Newly industrializing countries, though, increasingly play a role in international beach tourism. Moreover, restrictions on development are only economically viable for stakeholders if tourism businesses in place cater to high-spending tourists; thus create an equally high added value than unrestricted tourism options. In the absence of governmental intervention, conservation organizations are likely to suffer disadvantages when coexisting with a conventional tourism industry.
Best practice examples from around the world show successful coexistences of sea turtle conservation programs with tourism. Looking at them, it is possible to identify various coexistence mechanisms. These are:
- the use of turtles as a promotional vehicle and flagship by upmarket eco-resorts or whole tourism industries
- the employment and involvement of local residents in sea turtle tourism and collaboration with regional tour operators
- the full exploitation of the touristic value of sea turtles through volunteer programs, visitor centers with captive sea turtles and regional tourism promotion
- the transformation of turtle watching areas into prime ecotourism destinations
- the use of volunteer programs and sponsorship programs to sustain conservation efforts
Facilitating prerequisites to these coexistences were among others:
- high sea turtle activity
- high attraction potential for tourists (high chance of direct encounters)
- interest in and support of sea turtle tourism by influential players like government agencies, eco-resorts, academic institutions
- legal protection of the nesting beach
- financial and logistical capacity of the organizations to have local communities benefit from sea turtle tourism
- early presence of the organizations
Stakeholders who have been professionally working with sea turtles recognize tourism development as a threat. Some of them also perceive it to be in conflict with sea turtle conservation. This is because tourism businesses need to involve great numbers of people, extensive lighting and beachfront buildings to be profitable. The demand for beachfront proximity by holidaymakers could be a popular misconception though. Tourists might get attracted by other elements of the tourism experience and idyllic landscape elements like lush greenery, gardens and flowers. If this proves to be true, developers could be willing to include buffer zones in their development plans. This would be a huge step towards the effective combination of sea turtles and tourism development. However, tourists with different cultural and social backgrounds might have different preferences on the aesthetics of a beach and their accommodation. A study on tourist preferences on key nesting beaches could reveal if the demand for beachfront proximity is a common fallacy or not.
All in all, collaboration with local stakeholders is difficult to achieve because the mis-perceptions exist that sea turtles are not affected by tourism development or that sea turtles and tourism cannot be combined in the long run. Some residents in affected areas seem to have gotten used to the idea that the local sea turtle population vanishes; they are willing to accept this since tourism development gives them more personal benefits. It is down to the organizations and stakeholders on-site to demonstrate that sea turtle conservation and beach habitat protection is not in conflict with general development.
3 The “problem” with ecotourism
Conservation advocates praise ecotourism to be environmentally and socially sound, making it a preferable alternative to conventional tourism practices which are portrayed as unsustainable and exploitative. Moreover, ecotourism is advertised as a growing and increasingly popular branch of the worldwide tourism industry. But besides its various risks and pitfalls with respect to greenwashing, bad practice and triggering of development, ecotourism shows one additional limitation: it ignores the majority of the world population. Ecotourism is portrayed as a continuing trend of the sophisticated elite in western countries. It is uncertain how prominent it is among other tourism source markets which gain more and more of importance. Mass tourism, after all, might be a first reaction of a nation’s population to newly gained economic wealth and social welfare, as it appears to be with general environmental degradation and pollution currently visible in newly industrializing countries. With ever increasing tourist numbers worldwide, it seems difficult for governments and tourism stakeholders to work with limits on development – which is a major feature of good-practice ecotourism. This is especially true for countries that are in need for tourism revenues to drive their economic development. If ecotourism is to create the same amount of financial outcomes than conventional, high-volume tourism, it must be made expensive. This in turn makes it unattractive or unaffordable for many tourists.
Hence, it can be concluded that the potentially small customer base for good-practice ecotourism puts great limits to its worldwide implementation. Mass tourism, in turn, needs to take place in some areas around the world to serve the great volume of holidaymakers. It can be argued that ecotourism should exclusively be implemented in sensitive ecosystems and ecosystems of major importance for biodiversity and environmental health. However, if all tourism areas with these ecological features (habitats for endangered species, provision of crucial ecosystem services etc.) must be ruled out from conventional tourism, there might be few places left to serve the demand. In the end, the real problem of tourism is not a certain type but its overall volume. Or: the real problem of ecotourism is that it cannot serve the majority of the world’s tourists.
All these considerations, after all, do not imply that mass tourism per se cannot coexist with sea turtles. Mass tourism can be well compatible with sea turtle conservation if strict regulations like coastal setbacks, Lighting Ordinances and restrictions of beach use at night are set up, continuously enforced and well tolerated by all stakeholders. Examples for this are widespread in the USA (e.g. in Florida) and throughout the Carribean. Such successful coexistences can be achieved in destinations that meet a range of facilitating prerequisites, which are listed further below.
In this study, two main theses were to be discussed
Sea turtle conservation organizations are ambivalent in their coexistence with tourism.
This ambivalence becomes apparent as there are two forms of tourism coexisting with sea turtle conservation organizations. “Integrated” forms of tourism are seen as both desirable and necessary for the successful operation of the organization. “Detached” forms of tourism are seen as negative for the organization’s operation.
Certain prerequisites limit the potential for a successful coexistence of sea turtle conservation organizations with tourism.
In cases where these prerequisites are met, detached forms of tourism are more likely to develop and sea turtle conservation organizations are to suffer disadvantages.
It was demonstrated that privately run sea turtle conservation organizations are dependent on tourism for their successful existence and operation.
“Integrated” tourism programs (volunteer programs, educational trips, day visitor programs etc.) provide regular revenues in the form of donations, entrance fees and participation fees. They enable the organizations to reach self-sufficiency and to not be dependent on less reliable sources like sponsors or sporadic donations. Besides this, the programs of involvement, education and interpretation increase public awareness of the specific environmental issues. Even though the positive outcomes on the individuals are uncertain, conservation advocates are convinced that volunteers and visitors are affected in a positive way. This ensures appropriate behavior during the time of involvement and in the best case, a positive and proactive attitude towards environmental protection is kept up afterwards. Volunteers, moreover, are seen as important labor force. They help extend the range of possible conservation efforts and make the costly employment of external workers redundant.
In conclusion, integrated tourism programs offer several advantages for sea turtle conservation organizations. They are the most effective mechanism for the organizations to secure their existence and are highly needed in most cases. A prosperous integrated tourism industry can also bring wealth to affected communities and other local and regional stake-holders and thus increase the acceptance and support of the interlinked conservation efforts. Local families and small-scale businesses benefit if residents are employed to guide visitors or to work with the volunteers and if the project ensures that integrated tourists use local services in the surroundings. All in all, coexistence with tourism and the subsequent provision of income and development options are crucial if a conservation organization is to persist within a community. Simply put, the coexistence with some sort of profitable tourism is the “right to exist” for a conservation organization. In the best case, this tourism can be classified as integrated.
Conservation advocates are aware of the fact that any kind of tourism is in some way harmful to the environment. However, integrated forms of tourism are much more desirable than detached forms. If integrated programs were not offered, more people could end up in detached tourism practices. The risk that integrated tourism happens in addition to detached tourism and not in place of it, and that it triggers the development of detached tourism in the surroundings, is existent but cannot be proven. A further risk of integrated tourism is that due to its popularity and potential for money generation, actors increasingly become profit-oriented while conservation targets take a back seat. Tourist satisfaction might be put in the foreground, while bad practice is well tolerated.
While sea turtle advocates actively promote integrated tourism, they aim to hinder the development of detached tourism, as it is perceived to come along with negative impacts on the conservation work. This reflects an ambivalent attitude of sea turtle conservation organizations towards tourism, depending on whether it is classified as integrated or as detached. In many cases, the organizations are not powerful enough to hinder the development of detached tourism in the first place and thus need to find ways to turn it into more integrated forms by their own initiative and effort. A fully successful coexistence, however, is only achieved with appropriate government regulations. Possible regulations are the mandatory establishment of a buffer zone between the beach and touristic infrastructure, Lighting Ordinances and the ban of human activity on the beach at night. Because governments are eager to offer income and welfare to the whole nation and because tourism nowadays is an important engine for economic growth in developing and newly industrializing countries, governments are usually not conservation-driven. To convince a government to set up regulations and encourage local stakeholders to accept and enforce these, incentives must be given in the form of tangible (financial) benefits. These benefits can come through the full exploitation of the touristic potential of sea turtles and the establishment of a profitable sea turtle ecotourism industry. In the best case, local and regional stakeholders draw more or at least the same amount of benefits from sea turtle ecotourism than from alternative tourism options, which are then left redundant. To build up such a profitable sea turtle ecotourism industry, the turtle population as the core of it needs to have a certain size and popularity. This basic but most important prerequisite is not met by many beaches (any more). Those beaches have a seemingly low conservational value as their services for regional biodiversity and humanity are not apparent at first sight. In the meantime, some of the locations hold a great potential for beach tourism which is already being exploited for several years. This adds to the power surplus of the detached tourism industry.
In the absence of development regulations, the potential for a successful coexistence with tourism is greatly reduced. In this case, collaboration with detached tourism players is the remaining option. This strategy, however, has resulted ineffective to date for many small-scale organizations. Sea turtles are a draw for tourists and their widespread promotion and use as flagships demonstrate their popularity. There is the risk that tourism industries still benefit from the existence of sea turtle organizations even if the latter ones suffer disadvantages. As long as there is a remnant nesting population, tourism players can use sea turtles as a promotional vehicle without having to accept compromises coming along with protection measures and modifications of the facilities.
It can be concluded that the potential for a successful coexistence of sea turtle conservation organizations with tourism is minimal if national, regional and local stakeholders are not interested in building up a sea turtle ecotourism industry. This is likely the case if the recreational value of the area is deemed very high while the eco-touristic and environmental value is considered to be low.
Especially minor nesting beaches which are affected by small- to intermediate-scale tourism are likely to be disregarded by governments and the international public. For these cases, action-oriented assessments with recommendations for best practice are needed. The assessments can help identify situation-specific obstacles and possibilities to an enhanced coexistence. In-depth interviews with stakeholders are especially needed in environments characterized by small-scale processes, where collaboration efforts must be focused on personal relations and interactions.
Facilitating prerequisites for a successful coexistence of sea turtle conservation organizations with tourism were found to be:
- High sea turtle activity,
resulting in a high conservational and / or eco-touristic value of the beach
- Low potential of the destination for conventional tourism
- Legal protection of sea turtles and sea turtle products
- Governmental intervention in the form of habitat protection, development regulations and ecotourism promotion
- Enforcement of the regulations by local authorities
- Acceptance of the regulations by an informed public and an eco-minded customer base
- Correct, uniform knowledge about sea turtle issues among all main stakeholders
- Involvement of and support by:
powerful players like academic institutions and upmarket eco-resorts, local communities and the local tourism industry
It has been made clear that the low sea turtle activity on some beaches is a crucial factor which determines most other limiting prerequisites. It basically determines that sea turtle ecotourism stays a less profitable business and receives less public support and interest than conventional tourism. As a consequence, the organization stays the less powerful actor in its coexistence with tourism and is most probably confronted with disadvantages. Many smaller, privately run conservation efforts seem helpless against the booming tourism industries in newly industrializing and developing countries.