Judi Lowe is about to release the results of her groundbreaking new PhD research, which will change the way we think about dive tourism and the conservation of coral reefs, forever.

Soon to be internationally recognised as the expert on sustainable dive tourism, with a revolutionary new approach that could be the key to safeguarding coral reefs, fish stocks and megafauna, Judi agreed to give us a tantalising glimpse into the results of her extraordinary research.

ASIAN DIVER: Tell us what, in your opinion, is real “eco-tourism”, or “sustainable” tourism?

JUDI LOWE: Eco-tourism is an important concept, defined by Ceballos Lascurain in Mexico in 1983 and adopted by the IUCN in 1996, to mean responsible travel to natural areas that promotes conservation, has low impact and provides benefits to local people.

Sustainable tourism is defined by the UN World Tourism Organization as “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.

For dive tourism to be sustainable, it must actively conserve coral reefs, not just passively enjoy them. Since 95 percent of the world’s coral reefs lie in the tropics, with fishers living in poverty along their shores, the future of coral reefs and local fishers cannot be separated. For dive tourism to be sustainable, there must be tangible benefits to local fishers.

ASIAN DIVER: Why hasn’t “eco-tourism” been delivering the results we need in terms of conservation? How have most of us been missing the mark until now?

JUDI LOWE: Eco-tourism is a popular concept and it sells well. Sadly, it has become a much-abused marketing tool, promoting the perception that a tourism product is sustainable when it is not. Science shows that most dive tourism is anything but sustainable.

There are many eco-tourism certification schemes but they are designed for terrestrial tourism, not marine. Principles tend to be general and vague and their effectiveness stops at the high tide mark. Eco-tourism has failed to deliver the conservation of coral reefs, fish, sharks, whale sharks, whales, manta rays, and turtles.

Coral reefs are under threat from destructive fishing and overfishing, climate change and pollution. Of these, destructive fishing and overfishing are the greatest threats.

Shark finning is highly lucrative. Sustainable tourism can create alternative livelihoods for people and help halt this fishery

ASIAN DIVER: How is your research about to change all this?

JUDI LOWE: My research shows that when dive operators in the tropics use integrated coastal management and recognise the traditional rights of local fishers to fish coral reefs, then provide livelihoods to fishers and their communities, they conserve coral reefs and reduce destructive fishing and overfishing around dive sties. This is a result every marine protected area manager in the world wants to know how to do.

My PhD research produces a best practice model of sustainable dive tourism, capable of letting dive operators know what they need to do to conserve coral reefs and reduce destructive fishing and overfishing. This is a fresh approach to the role of dive tourism in conserving coral reefs. It makes dive tourism a valuable contributor, which deserves a seat at the table in the management of coral reefs.

ASIAN DIVER: Are there any examples out there of a truly sustainable marine tourism model?

It has never been more important for dive tourism to be truly sustainable, to help secure the future of coral reefs and the communities they support

JUDI LOWE: Happily, there will be soon. My best-practice model of sustainable dive tourism is based on the most widely accepted model for conserving coral reefs, fish and megafauna, called integrated coastal management (ICM). ICM was developed from lessons from major coral reef conservation projects in the Philippines and Indonesia. There are 10 things you need to do to conserve coral reefs. Soon, I will explain these 10 factors in detail and why they are important to dive operators.

ASIAN DIVER: What’s the next step? How are you planning to take this out of the academic world and into the real world?

JUDI LOWE: Scientific journal articles can be expensive to access and hard to read, so I will also publish my results
in dive magazines around the world. I will roll out the best-practice model of sustainable dive tourism to interested parties on completion of my PhD early in 2017. Happily, the model can also be adapted to other forms of marine tourism including beach going, surfing, sailing and cruise ships.

ASIAN DIVER: What obstacles do you foresee with the implementation of this new approach? Have you been able to identify ways to overcome them?

JUDI LOWE: The most common objections from dive operators about engaging in conservation are “I don’t have the money for that” and “That’s the government’s job”.

Firstly, coral reefs and fish stocks are a dive business’s primary assets. Not protecting them runs down the value of the business over time. Divers are prepared to pay more to see healthy coral reefs, fish, sharks, manta rays, whales sharks and turtles. When a coral reef is damaged and fish disappear, divers simply go somewhere else. Conservation is an investment.

Secondly, in a perfect world, governments would have the resources and will to protect coral reefs. In the tropics, where most coral reefs lie, governments don’t always have the funds or the will to conserve them.

Given government failure, or low capacity, who is going to step in? Dive businesses make money from coral reefs. They are out on the water every day. It makes perfect business sense that dive operators would contribute, becoming partners in protecting coral reefs.

Read the rest of this article in 2016 Issue 4 Volume 143 of Asian Diver magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.

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