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 Senior Editor Alice Grainger a tantalising glimpse into the results of her extraordinary research.

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

Why hasn’t “ecotourism” been delivering the results we need in terms of conservation? How have most of us been missing the mark until now?
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.

How is your research about to change all this?
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.

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


Are there any examples out there of a truly sustainable marine tourism model?
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.

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

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

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


Why did you decide to undertake this herculean task?
I’ve always loved diving. On my first dive travel to the Solomon Islands in 1990, I was mesmerised by untouched coral reefs, plentiful sharks and huge schools of pelagic fish. The dive manager had to ask village chiefs for permission to dive. That’s when the importance of recognising traditional rights to coral reefs first occurred to me.

Diving 18 countries but over 25 years, I’ve seen the same things: The huge schools of pelagics are gone; sharks are very hard to find; muck diving has become a big thing, in part because there are no fish or megafauna around. At this point in life, I want to give back.

That’s why I’m doing my PhD research, which develops the best-practice model of sustainable dive tourism.

How vital is it that we get this right and move towards a truly sustainable approach?
You know, Facebook and media confront us with tragic ocean images every day. Marine science is full of intractable issues. I couldn’t do this if I thought it was hopeless. So many people are researching, doing and caring. Best of all, I see dive operations where conservation is working. My Bright Spots are case studies of dive operators that are making a big difference. We can learn from them.

A parrotfish, an ecologically important herbivore, killed by a ghost net


Do you feel optimistic about the future of sustainable marine tourism?
Absolutely. Most divers and dive operators care. Other marine tourism doesn’t see coral reefs from the same perspective but they enjoy the same ocean environment – sun, sand, sea and local people in beautiful tropical locations. Marine tourism can bring much-needed foreign exchange to influence politicians and governments to conserve coral reefs.

This best-practice model of sustainable marine tourism will help us make marine tourism sustainable. It would be good to see dive tourism earn a seat at the table in the management of coral reefs.

Judi Lowe is a marine science PhD candidate at Southern Cross University, New South Wales, Australia, with an unusual background. Using her experience as a diver, accountant and international lawyer, Judi’s research takes a fresh approach, solving practical, real-world problems in the conservation of coral reefs, fish and the marine megafauna we love to dive with.

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