How can whale shark tourism be kept sustainable?

When the revenue generated by wildlife-related tourism is higher than that generated by the consumption of that wildlife, then the animals in question are worth more alive than dead. This seems intuitive, but the economics of wildlife tourism aren’t always easy to work out.

Over the last couple decades, one form of wildlife-based tourism that has quickly become popular is diving alongside free-swimming whale sharks. While they’re the largest fishes in the sea, whale sharks are actually quite docile and have highly predictable seasonal movement patterns. That makes them particularly attractive to dive operators. While whale shark tourism has operated in Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef since the late 1980s or early 1990s, most whale shark tourism outfits have sprung up more recently, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, Honduras, Belize, the Philippines, Mozambique, Seychelles, and the Maldives. While some attempts have been made to quantify the economic impacts of whale shark tourism in Ningaloo, Belize, and the Seychelles, nobody has done so for the Maldives. Measuring the economic value of the industry is especially important because it is difficult for local governments, with limited powers especially when it comes to environmental protection, to prioritize conservation without that information.

The Republic of Maldives is known for its local abundance of sharks, rays, turtles, and cetaceans. While whale sharks were once hunted there commercially for oil and fins, it slowed down to a trickle by the 1960s, and was mostly eradicated by the early 1990s. In 1993, an early estimation for the value of the nascent Maldives whale shark tourism industry was made, and that led to a national whale shark hunting ban in 1995. Later, in 2009, that helped drive the creation of three small marine protected areas (MPAs). But in the twenty years since that first study was done, tourism has exploded.

With his colleagues, Edgar Fernando Cagua, a scientist with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, set out to conduct a new economic assessment of whale shark tourism in the South Ari MPA. It’s the largest MPA in the Maldives, covering some 42 square kilometers. Rather than surveying tourists (“How much would you be willing to spend?”), Cagua’s group instead collected data on how much actually was spent directly on whale shark dive operations. They also estimated the number of vessels and individual tourists that were running or participating in whale shark dives.

For 2012, they estimated that the direct expenditure on whale shark excursions was $7.6 million in 2012, and $9.4 million in 2013, with approximately 72,000 and 78,000 individual visitors respectively. Tours were more likely to take place between Monday and Thursday, and less likely over the weekend. Wednesday was busiest. Excursions were also more likely to occur during tourist season, naturally, than during the off-season. The same pattern emerged when considering dollars spent, rather than the number of boats in the water. Unfavorable weather, naturally, had a negative effect; a wind speed of just one standard deviation above the average was associated with a 13% decrease in daily revenue. Tourism isn’t only beneficial for the industry. Thanks to taxes, the government would have collected around $457,200 in 2012 and $748,800 in 2013, thanks to whale sharks.

In 1993, the estimated annual revenue from whale shark tourism was $2.3 million ($3.7 million if adjusted for inflation). That means that in just twenty years, whale shark tourism in the Maldives has increased between three and four times. That’s good news for whale shark conservation, but only if the industry is careful. For example, as general-interest tourists increasingly join their more wildlife-obsessed counterparts, excursion operators will need to put “emphasis on a high-quality experience rather than in the encounter itself, especially in an industry where word of mouth is the key mechanism of promotion,” says Cagua.

He also recommends that the Maldives institute a scheme for the licensing of operators. In Ningaloo, such a program has ensured that they minimal standards without being an obstacle for business development. Cagua also recommends that tour operators make an effort to promote dives on weekends to reduce crowding during the week. Spotter planes also could help facilitate encounters by making searching more efficient, allowing operators to disperse across a larger geographic area and a larger number of sharks. That would ease the stress from the sharks having to share space with all those boats.

Finally, Cagua’s group recommends that tour operators be directly involved in data collection, either on paper or with GPS based logbooks, in order to attain even more accurate information on the number, density, and location of whale sharks over time, and to determine whether there are any correlations between tourism activity and shark activity. “Stakeholder participation of this sort,” they write, “could be valuable to legitimize heightened management applications as well as assure timely stakeholder adoption of new regulations.” By working together, the whale shark tourism industry and the Maldives government can ensure a profitable, sustainable industry that’s maximally beneficial for our species as well as for Rhincodon typus. – Jason G. Goldman | 22 August 2014

Source: Cagua E.F., N. Collins, J. Hancock & R. Rees (2014). Whale shark economics: a valuation of wildlife tourism in South Ari Atoll, Maldives, PeerJ, 2 e515. DOI:

Header image: