Marine ecotourism and the need for best-practice planning

The term ‘marine ecotourism’ means different things to different people. At the heart of almost all definitions of marine ecotourism, however, is the aim of appreciation and enjoyment of the natural marine environment in all of its many forms, along with any associated cultural features.

Simply put, ecotourism is tourism that is based on enabling people to experience the natural environment in a manner that is consistent with the principles of sustainable development.

There is no reason why marine ecotourism should be intrinsically sustainable – the various activities must be planned and managed in such a way that sustainability is built in at the outset.

In the context of this blog, the term ‘marine ecotourism’ is intended to denote ecotourism activities that take place in the coastal zone, in the marine environment, or in both.

The development of marine ecotourism may be perceived as an opportunity to help regenerate coastal communities that are experiencing economic hardship as a result of the decline of their traditional economic sectors, such as agriculture, commercial fishing and seaside tourism.

Marine ecotourism can also generate positive outcomes for the natural environment, for example by raising funds that can be used for environmental protection, by providing economic alternatives to activities that degrade or deplete the natural environment, and by more widely propagating eco-awareness and the principles of sustainable development. Yet experience has shown that if marine ecotourism is to play this role effectively, it must be developed within a planning framework that ensures that the practice of ecotourism is compatible with sustainability principles.

Marine ecotourism involves bringing tourists close to nature: an activity that carries with it the risk of causing serious harm the very things that ecotourism providers are helping tourists to experience. Marine ecotourism that is done badly may do more harm than good.

Marine ecotourism is fundamentally about attempting to establish and maintain a symbiotic relationship between tourism and the natural marine environment. This means conducting tourism that gives tourists a satisfying experience – one that they will pay for – while appreciating the intrinsic conservation value of the natural environment on which marine ecotourism depends.

The dependence of marine ecotourism on a high quality natural environment is at the same time both its major weakness and its major strength. On the one hand, marine ecotourism is an activity that involves bringing people into contact with the natural environment. In doing so, all marine ecotourism carries with it the risk of damaging the things that ecotourists wish to experience. Whale watching activities from motorised boats may, for example, have the effect of disturbing the animals concerned at critical points in their life cycle (e.g. mating or suckling young). This in turn may threaten the biological viability of the population of whales that the ecotourists are being encouraged to watch. On the other hand, the reliance of marine ecotourism providers on a high quality environment in which to operate presents them with a strong incentive to respect and protect it. Furthermore, marine ecotourism can help to provide the necessary funds for the management of the activity and for conservation work relating to the components of the natural environment concerned.

Sustainability is the key concept in defining genuine ecotourism. It has been argued, however, that the requirement of sustainability often represents the weak link between the principles and practices of ecotourism. While those responsible for ecotourism areas tend to be very willing to sign up to the concept of sustainability, too often the driver of ecotourism in practice is the desire to generate economic returns from otherwise under-used (and hence low opportunity cost) resources. Typically this implies stimulating progressive increases in visitor numbers (often through aggressive marketing), inevitably leading to greater damaging impacts to the natural environment, in addition to various adverse socio-cultural impacts on the local population. The irony is that poorly planned and managed ecotourism can contribute to its own demise since ecotourism requires the provision of an ongoing high quality resource for its successful operation.

Case studies suggest that those ecotourism providers that are most effectively practising marine ecotourism according to the criteria outlined above tend to:

  • operate in relatively remote areas;
  • have some evolving environmental and tourism management structures in place;
  • and be run by self-motivated operators.

However, as an ecosystem-based form of tourism, marine ecotourism has an obligation also to respect the global environment, which may be adversely affected by the global warming implications of the transport needed to reach remote areas.


Any new development will entail a mixture of costs and benefits and conflicting interests, and this is very much the case with marine ecotourism. The planning system can be used to help resolve these conflicting interests, especially the need to promote more economic opportunities while ensuring that new development does not cause harm to the natural environment. But the planning system can also be a brake on certain forms of development if they do not meet specified criteria – including marine ecotourism projects that do not follow good practice.

Initiatives will need to be designed with the requirements of the planning system in mind, while at the same time parallel efforts are needed to ensure that planning systems and policies provide a conducive setting for the development of appropriate marine ecotourism projects.

Spatial or territorial planning is the means by which governments seek to guide and regulate the use of land and property and to influence investment in new development. Spatial planning systems are also used to improve coordination of the impacts of other sectoral policies on patterns of land use and to address economic disparities.

The planning authority is often the leading agency in promoting development initiatives and coordinating the activities of other agencies in implementation. Increasing attention is being given to the role of spatial planning in providing a strategic framework for public sector investment. Thus, funding programmes and individual projects will usually have to demonstrate that they are in accordance with the regional and local planning strategy.

The planning system therefore has a critical potential role in promoting, organising and regulating marine ecotourism activity. In practice, different planning systems operate in differing ways and with varying objectives. In many places the need for economic development is paramount. In these cases planning may promote development but it will also generally seek to minimise its negative environmental impacts. Where the unwanted effects of tourism at the local level have not been controlled well, there have been demands for planning systems to resist new development altogether. But in many places this approach is now giving way to more positive promotion of sustainable development. This recognises the potential of appropriate development to economic, environmental and social sustainability.

In this approach, the planning system should seek to shape new development so that it makes a positive contribution to the environment and also ensure that the maximum economic return is made to the local area. However, some regions have made more progress on embracing sustainable development objectives than others.

The types of formal planning instruments vary from place to place. All planning systems use a combination of plans that specify the criteria that will be used to assess new development proposals together with a system of permit control. There will be a system of consultation with other interests at certain points in the process. Permits are usually granted at the local level but important policy documents that influence decision-making at the local level will exist at the local, regional and in some cases, national levels. It should be recognised that while there may be provision for plans at various levels, these may not be complete or up to date. The importance of planning instruments varies. In most countries there is at least one plan that is legally binding and development that is in accordance with that plan will be approved.

If local initiatives to promote marine ecotourism are to be successful it is critical that the planning system is able to respond to them in a positive way. This means that efforts should be made to ensure that planning instruments at all levels incorporate appropriate policies that support marine ecotourism; planning officials and elected members who prepare plans and issue permits understand the nature and value of marine ecotourism; there is early contact between initiators of marine ecotourism initiatives and the planning authority when any new project comes forward.

Initiators of local marine ecotourism projects will need to review the planning policy context. In all cases, it will be important to ensure that any national and regional planning instruments are supportive of appropriate marine ecotourism. A clear policy statement at the national and/or regional levels will be an important signal to local decision-makers.

At the local level, there may be opportunities to incorporate revised policies and criteria for marine ecotourism during the periodic review of plans. In these cases it will be helpful to specify draft criteria or ‘model policies’ which the planning authority could consider for formal adoption. Where this is not possible, it may be appropriate to prepare supplementary guidance for decision-makers that provides additional advice and criteria tailored to local circumstances. It is particularly important that the implications of any binding planning instruments are considered, since their revision may be a lengthy and complicated process.

(with acknowledgement to the META-project)

In future blogs we will take a closer look at who marine Ecotourists are;  the Principles of Genuinely Sustainable Marine Ecotourism;  Education and Interpretation; Responsible Marketing and more.

Contact Lorton for planning support for your Marine Tourism project.

1 Comment

  1. Magnificent site. Lots of helpful info here. I am sending it to some of my tourismassociates. And naturally, thank you to your sweat!

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