Fri, Jun 22, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Coral reef tourism protects its pot of gold

The destruction of nature's beautiful underwater kingdoms by coastal development, shore runoff and fishing techniques has seen the tourism industry increase conservation efforts

By Bonnie Tsui  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Green sea turtles, cascades of glittering reef fish, blooming coral pillars -- countless travelers have come nose to nose with a thriving undersea universe while on vacation.

But increasingly, divers and snorkelers are swimming over bleached hunks of coral devastated by shore runoff or overfishing. From the South Pacific to the Caribbean, coral reefs -- which are among the most delicate of marine ecosystems -- are bearing the brunt of climate change and other human-driven activities -- including coastal development, deforestation and unrestricted tourism.

Now, many in the tourist industry are trying to halt the damage and it is no wonder. The dollars involved in reef-based tourism are significant: Australia's Great Barrier Reef alone draws about 1.9 million visitors a year, supporting a US$4.2 billion industry. According to the Nature Conservancy, the annual economic value of coral reefs to world tourism is US$9.6 billion.

Growing awareness of environmental issues means that the tourism industry has lately been a partner to conservation efforts in major reef areas. Though the Great Barrier is the most famous reef, it is not the most threatened; its extensive marine management program is widely regarded as a model for conservation.

It includes eco-certification programs for tourism operators within the boundaries of the marine park, environmental tourist fees, large no-take zones, species monitoring and tourism industry contributions to the Great Barrier Reef's main research center.

ENDANGERED

But the world's second-largest barrier reef, the Mesoamerican Reef in the Caribbean, is seriously endangered by coastal development, runoff and pollution. The reef system stretches nearly 1,100km from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico to the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Reefs in the Coral Triangle in Southeast Asia -- which reaches from Malaysia to the Philippines, Indonesia, and the Solomon Islands, encompassing some of the planet's most diverse marine habitats -- have also been severely damaged by overfishing and destructive practices, including the use of cyanide and dynamite to capture fish.

In 2004, the nonprofit group Conservation International began a program called the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative, which aims to address the threat that mass tourism poses to the Mesoamerican Reef by engaging hoteliers, developers, cruise lines and local governments in Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. There is special emphasis on the Riviera Maya of Mexico, where, less than 14km offshore, the island of Cozumel is the world's second most-visited cruise destination after Miami, according to the International Council of Cruise Lines.

Last year, as part of the Mesoamerican Reef initiative's efforts, the cruise line council began an effort to avoid wastewater discharge by cruise ships in environmentally sensitive areas.

"This program will ensure that cruise line wastewater is discharged at least 6.5km from any of the sensitive marine ecosystems within the Mesoamerican Reef system, thereby minimizing the chance such discharges will have negative impact on the long-term health of the reef," said Jamie Sweeting, who oversees the work of Conservation International with the industry.

The cruise industry is a particular area of concern, since ships regularly disgorge crowds of passengers into fragile coastal areas that strain to absorb the impact. Conservation International estimates that cruise passengers typically make about 2,000 scuba dives in and around Cozumel's surrounding reefs in a single day.

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