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The Power of the Marine Tourism Industry in Fighting Climate Change

ฺby JJ Harvey, International Coordinator, Green Fins


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It is not often that people associate the SCUBA diving industry or snorkelers with being a potential leader when it comes to fighting climate change or other marine conservation aspects in today’s climate. However, due to initiatives such as Green Fins, more and more diving and snorkelling businesses are becoming the new weapon in the fight to ensure the sustainability of one of the world’s fastest and increasingly popular activities in what is now the world’s fastest growing industry – tourism.

Green Fins is paving the way to unite politics and marine conservation efforts to ensure the sustainability of popular diving destinations around the world. Established through a partnership between the United Nations Environment Programme and The Reef-World Foundation, Green Fins uses a unique and proven three-pronged approach; green certifications of dive centres, strengthening regulations, and environmental education for dive staff, divers and governments. Over 400 dive and snorkel operators across six countries have signed up for free membership, and are using Green Fins as a platform to set examples of sustainable business operations. Participating members are awarded a unique certificate based on annual assessments that is co-signed by the national government, the United Nations, and The Reef-World Foundation.

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Ensuring the sustainability of diving and snorkelling can actually be the difference between success and failure of a business, and the industry as a whole, as it depends on a healthy and robust coral ecosystem. If the industry can maintain a sustainable approach, the businesses, staff and suppliers that all depend on attractive healthy and balanced corals can continue to succeed, bringing year on year returns of guests and clients, and their tourism dollars. If the marine ecosystems are exploited and taken for granted, then the keystone is removed leading to the economic demise of the businesses that have been built on the attractive brochure pictures and social media posts of vibrant fish, coral reefs, clean sandy beaches, and numerous palm trees lining the beach front.

This statement might appear stark and exaggerated, but there are many locations that tourists are no longer visiting due to these very reasons. Parts of the coastline of South East Asia, a tourism mecca for many years, have shown their boom and bust, outstripping their carrying capacity, resulting from their unsustainable use of the very marine resources that people came flooding to see in the first place. Simple best practices have been overlooked, such as to not use an anchor on coral reefs, discharging untreated sewerage into the sea, allowing fishing, and collecting of sensitive species that take a long time to reproduce, and the ever present and growing issue of marine debris, notably plastic waste.

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Green Fins is helping to overcome many of these issues through providing educational workshops with the staff and guests of dive centres that want to join the programme. Education is key and when dive guides and dive shop managers are aware, for instance, that the Dettol used to clean the fresh water tanks for kit cleaning can harm the corals if released into the sea when emptied, or if the boat captain is aware that any plastic bags/packaging/cups/cigarettes etc. that end up overboard into the sea will most likely be ingested by a turtle or dolphin, then they are far less likely to let these things happen in the first place.

The Coral Triangle is a partnership of six countries in South East Asia that has been coined as the ‘centre of  world biodiversity.’ There are more species here than anywhere else on Earth and Indonesia sits right at the heart of this. Green Fins was implemented into north Sulawesi back in 2009 in the popular diving destination of Manado and the surrounding island of Bunaken. Despite a lack of annual Green Fins assessments due to this only being a pilot site at the time, the programme continues to have an impact from the initial training sessions that took place all those years ago. Dive guides and managers implemented certain practices that get passed on to new staff ensuring that simple messages such as to inform people not to touch or take anything when diving, continue to be a part of everyday pre-dive briefings.

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The other important aspect to think about is the “knock-on effect.” Most hotel employees are locally sourced and often in areas where the tourism industry is an important source of livelihood for entire communities and villages, and often a more environmentally friendly alternative to making a living. Not only are they far more inclined to take care of their marine office if they are more aware of the susceptibility of coral reefs, for example from damaging contact from divers and snorkelers fins, but they take home new found knowledge. For instance the breakdown times of trash (plastic bag: 10-20 years!) and the importance of correct disposal of oil and batteries, something the industry produces a lot of.

Typically, the general public relied on the government and international organisations to provide solutions and alternatives to less damaging impacts, but now the focus has shifted.
Being at the coal face of the issue and inspired by people power to help bring about change (and often using social media), dive centres are leading the charge from the bottom up. It is now the expected norm in some areas that recycling should be done in-house, even if there are no government programmes, that dive guides correctly brief their guests on correct buoyancy to ensure contact with the reef doesn’t happen, and that overall, businesses are operating in a manner that has minimum impact on their surrounding environment. Guests now expect this of their chosen tour operator / diving business and those that fail on ensuring they have environmental policies in place to protect the environment are falling behind their competitors. Green Fins promotes good examples of behaviour, and through their robust annual assessment system, this allows dive centres to show improvement through a scoring system that if good enough can result in being awarded a Top Ten International member. Something that is promoted at dive shows and other international events with a high media presence.

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In addition to the Green Fins initiative founded in 2004 by UNEP, there are more recently emerging programmes that exist in this challenge to ensure sustainability, such as the Green Bubbles programme based in Europe that is primarily a research based initiative looking at ensuring the best environmental, economic, and social sustainability of the recreational SCUBA diving industry. There is also Blue Certified, an Eco-label for the dive industry aiming to provide more efficient business practices and cost savings that ultimately benefit the environment, and numerous other promotional programmes through diver certification agencies, all with the same focus, to achieve better sustainability.

The climate we operate in today is more unpredictable and fragile than it has even been before. The very existence of parts of the Great Barrier Reef, a well-known coral reef institution known throughout the world was threatened recently as that too was not immune to the massive increase in sea surface temperatures caused by climate change that led to the bleaching of vast swathes of coral reefs. The recent El Nio event has shown us something though, even if at the cost of many coral reefs. Areas where there was little or no human impact on the corals were more resilient, able to bounce back more quickly and in some cases not die altogether. This proves that despite the common misconception that as individuals and ‘mere dive guides’ we don’t have the power to influence climate change, is in fact wrong. By reducing additional pressures on coral reefs, be it from guests diving fins breaking the corals, removing pretty but important shells such as the triton’s trumpet, or preventing oil and diesel from boats entering the marine environment, the SCUBA diving and snorkelling industry do in fact have the ability the enhance the strength and capability of the corals to withstand these large scale climatic events.

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So, implementing best practices within dive and snorkel businesses is not only enhancing the customer experience, but also ensures the longevity and sustainability of your own business providing not only a profitable but a reliable business that communities can rely on for years to come.

If you want to know more about Green Fins and how you can take part, then please visit the website and enquire about membership in active areas. If there is no active team in your area, then Green Fins have a whole host of free posters, guidelines, and even a full handbook that will show you how to implement best practices in your dive or snorkel centre today.


Disclaimer: The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author(s) and those providing comments on these blogs are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) or any employee thereof. We make no representations as to accuracy, completeness, timeliness, suitability or validity of any information presented by individual authors and/or commenters on our blogs and will not be liable for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.