Genuine sustainable tourism projects can help save our corals says Steve Newman, Group Director of Conservation for Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts in the Maldives
In 2016 the world experienced its third major coral bleaching event, the results of which look set to be worse than the 1998 El Niňo disaster which saw an estimated 16% of all corals worldwide perish. By 2050, the general consensus is that bleaching events will become more frequent and more severe, threatening many coral species with extinction. Can the tourism industry do anything to help?
Coral bleaching caused by increases in water temperature is one of the most pressing climate-change-related threats to coral reefs. An increase of just a degree or two can stress corals enough to make them expel a symbiotic algae and turn white, so they appear “bleached”. Corals can recover from bleaching which lasts less than a few weeks, but any longer and many corals perish. While it is difficult to prepare for global climate events, I do believe that sensitive, sustainable tourism can play an important role in the conservation and restoration of reefs.
Last year Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts became one of the first private businesses worldwide to implement a bleaching response plan in the Maldives, which has the seventh largest coral reef system on the planet. While not a panacea for bleaching, the plan provides a holistic framework for the monitoring, management and restoration of the islands coral reefs, and is supported by dedicated on-site marine labs on Vabbinfaru and Velavaru as well as by guest engagement and citizen science programmes.
Managing any resource – be it money, fuel, people or the environment – first requires monitoring, and long term monitoring of our reef sites will help us understand change, direct our conservation efforts and assess our impact and success. Citizen science programmes are an important part of this, enabling people of all ages and skills to participate in scientific research. We provide fun, easy to use underwater photo-guides that allow anyone in the water to record sightings, and we educate and connect people with the environment in other ways to encourage them to feel genuine care towards it and want to take care of it in the future.
Before the 2016 bleaching event we’d already established nurseries to support 1000 corals on our Vabbinfaru, Ihuru and Velavaru house reefs – deep enough to avoid the effect of increased temperatures. After the event, both staff and guests helped to transplant these baby corals to help natural reef recovery – a low cost, low tech but highly effective process. The signs of natural recovery are now evident on our house reefs, where diverse and abundant fish communities are helping the reef recover and numerous baby corals are growing on top of the corals that perished.
Sustainable tourism ventures create environmental stewardship, and if founded on best practice and scientific knowledge, can help mitigate impacts and expedite recovery. However, a global approach is needed to ensure longevity of global coral reefs. Global challenges such as climate change are often daunting to tackle. I believe it’s only through collective, progressive action for the good of all that we will be able to effect positive change.