Why the time has come for a Coral Triangle nature-based tourism brand | WWF
Why the time has come for a Coral Triangle nature-based tourism brand

Posted on 10 April 2016

A detailed study looks at the state of the tourism industry in the Coral Triangle countries—and explains why, in terms of both sustainability and business, nature-based tourism is the way to go.
Low-impact, high-value, nature-based tourism is the way of the future, and the Coral Triangle can be the premier destination for this experience.

This is the gist of the recently released report on “Nature-based Marine Tourism in the Coral Triangle: Exploring the potential for low-impact, high-value Nature-based Marine and Coastal Tourism,” produced by 2iis Consulting for WWF, with the support of Australian Aid and the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security (CTI-CFF).

The 2iis report provides substantial data on the business viability of the Coral Triangle region—specifically, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste—as a nature-based tourism brand, what is needed to promote it, what problems are in the way, and what opportunities are available.

The report also includes studies of the tourism industries in the six countries, lists down global models, and suggests a framework for the brand’s architecture, or how the Coral Triangle brand would be identified, developed, and promoted.

The 2iis report was guided by the project overview for “Developing and Promoting Sustainable Nature-based Tourism in the Coral Triangle,” which includes the vision that  “The Coral Triangle region is a renowned sustainable tourism destination with economic benefits flowing to communities, governments and private enterprise, providing a strong incentive to protect and sustain the region's natural environment.”

Top export earner

In 2014, tourism made up 9% of global GDP, the 2iis report quotes the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The industry accounted for over 9% of worldwide employment (approximately 200 million people) and over US$1.5 trillion in global exports. Tourism is a top export earner in 80% of the world’s countries.

The growth shows no signs of slowing. The UNWTO forecasts international arrivals to reach 1.6 billion by the year 2020, and 1.8 billion by 2030, the report says. Asia and the Pacific will see the fastest growth, the report states. The region welcomed 263 million tourists in 2014, earning US$377 billion; the number of visitors is expected to hit 535 million by 2030, thanks to an expanding middle class and the corresponding increase in disposable income.

“The Asia Pacific can be at the forefront of a tourism sector that focuses on the incredible beauty and wealth of natural assets,” says Jackie Thomas, Leader of the WWF Coral Triangle Programme. “There’s a diversity of experiences here; the CT has marine parks and marine managed  areas where local communities and their stakeholders are taking measures to ensure the survival of these beautiful areas.”

The price of tourism growth

The growth has come at a price, however, as the impacts of accelerated mass tourism development have also increased—problems ranging from mounting pressure on local resources, indiscriminate building in coastal areas, and cultural degradation, to the exclusion of local communities from benefits, social ills like alcohol and drugs, and more direct environmental damage from pollution, habitat destruction, and more.

“It’s both exciting and worrying,” says Thomas. “But we’re at a point where there is such a high level of interest of governments in tourism that if they implement safeguards, and showcase models of sustainable low-impact tourism, then there is a great opportunity to foster tourism industries that value and protect fragile marine ecosystems, benefit coastal communities through economic opportunities, protect the culture and way of life, and still give visitors an awesome experience.”

Nature-based tourism—also called “ecotourism” or “adventure tourism” in some places—is being touted as the solution. The 2iis report quotes Sustainable Tourism Online’s definition of this approach as “any type of tourism that relies on experiences directly related to natural attractions, and includes ecotourism, adventure tourism, extractive tourism, wildlife tourism, and nature retreats.”

The 2iis report further posits that the Coral Triangle can potentially become a top nature-based and adventure tourism destination. “Not only does it sit within the Asia-Pacific region, which is forecast to experience the fastest rate of tourism growth of any region in the world, but it sits in a region of significant biodiversity—a natural resource base that is very much under-utilised currently when it comes to nature and adventure-based tourism.”

The promise of nature-based tourism

In the 2iis report, the UNWTO estimates that nature-based and adventure tourism are growing annually by 10-30%, and currently account for up to 25% of the world’s tourist market. It also estimates the revenue generated by nature-based tourism in the Coral Triangle in 2013-2014 at US$25 billion. That’s expected to hit US$204.4 billion in 2035—by any reckoning, a huge income generator that also comes with the “much lighter social, ecological, and cultural footprint” of nature-based tourists, the report says.

This presents a great opportunity for tourism enterprises pushing low-impact experiences. “The unique natural attractions that cover vast areas in Southeast Asia are among its key pull factors for foreign travelers, together with the unique culture and friendliness of the locals,” says Koen Ruisch, sales manager and customer relations advisor of Happy Trails! Indonesia, a foreign-managed, Bali-based destination management company that has been advocating responsible and sustainable tourism for the last 13 years. “To further develop nature-based tourism, a strong focus on unity in sustainability and ecotourism approaches is needed. Enhanced infrastructure will also be required.”

A Coral Triangle nature-based tourism initiative would be consistent with the objectives of the CTI-CFF, harnessing a dynamic industry to preserve one of the world’s most unique ecosystems. In fact, the 2iis report says, the CTI-CFF’s Regional Plan of Action (RPoA) cites the role of healthy marine resources in a nature-based tourism industry that could generate millions in revenue and create thousands of jobs. “The CTI-CFF is seen as a model of collaboration to protect the region, and to ensure that its resources continue to support industries such as tourism,” adds Thomas.

As Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) also figure significantly in the RPoA, they can benefit directly from sustainable nature-based tourism, which seeks out and supports healthy coastal and marine habitats. A healthy sustainable tourism industry should generate investments in the protection and management of high conservation areas that have become “must-see” nature-based tourism destinations, while remaining essential to people’s food security and livelihoods.

Early stages of tourism development

The 2iis report classifies six Coral Triangle nations into four categories, based on tourism metrics employed in the study. The Solomon Islands, with an estimated tourism value per annum of US$62.2 million, and Timor-Leste, at US$57 million per annum, are at an early stage of tourism development, with natural attractions that could be the foundation of a growing nature-based tourism industry. Papua New Guinea (tourism value per annum: US$475.3 million) is bigger than the other two countries in terms of size, and boasts of what may be the strongest level of biodiversity in the region.

The Philippines (tourism value per annum: US$29 billion) faces some infrastructure challenges, but also has a strong resource base and a domestic market for its “ecotourism” offerings. Finally, there are the most developed tourism markets of Malaysia (US$37.7 billion) and Indonesia, (US$86.9 billion), identified as having the biggest opportunity to develop a nature-based tourism segment, as well as the most urgent need to do so, due to increasing negative impacts of mass tourism.

From concept to tourism brand

The brand must be able to highlight the ecological and cultural uniqueness of the Coral Triangle and translate these into sustainable economic benefits, as well as incentives for better environmental management, the 2iis report notes. A “halo brand” would initially focus on specific sites, but “will ultimately have a net positive impact on promoting the entire region as a tourism destination.”

The 2iis report concludes with a number of important points. Among the most noteworthy are that the global opportunities for niche tourism—nature-based and adventure—are growing fast; such niche segments provide greater return on investment than mass tourism, especially in terms of economic, social, environmental, and cultural benefits; and the Coral Triangle is in an ideal position to take advantage of such opportunities.

“If we look at the work being done to explore the value of a regional brand, then nature-based tourism can truly meet the aspirations of countries, communities, and businesses that want to encourage repeat visitation, enhancing the Coral Triangle’s reputation as a must-see destination,” Thomas concludes.

A regional tourism brand would be key to making the Coral Triangle a premier nature-based tourism destination—and to the benefits a sustainable, responsibly-managed industry can bring.