World Ocean Summit 2019 – sustainable tourism in the blue economy

How sustainable is coastal tourism? What is needed to achieve sustainability is discussed here.

The sixth World Ocean Summit was held from 5-7 March 2019 in Abu Dhabi, bringing together political leaders and policymakers, heads of global business, scientists, NGOs and multilaterals from across the globe, to provide a forum for discussion amongst a more diverse and representative participation on the future of the ocean than ever before.

What would a truly sustainable coastal tourism industry look like? And what contribution can it make to the development of the blue economy? CORDIO Director David Obura participated in a panel on sustainable tourism – the video below captures a 3-minute segment of the 25 minute session, and the main points of David Obura’s intervention are summarized below.


Panel participants:

Jan Piotrowski, Environment correspondent, The Economist – Moderator
Joe Okudo,Principal Secretary, Tourism, Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, Kenya
David Obura, Founding director, CORDIO East Africa
Remi Blokker, Chief executive, Bluerise


The key points in David Obura’s intervention for the session:

Coastal tourism needs nature
1) Coastal tourism needs nature – beaches, coastal forests, lagoons, coral reefs – but its energy and material demands, and concentration of people, generally exceed local natural capacity.

2) Coral reefs are a flagship, or a learning system – they help to show whether tourism is in balance with nature or not. And in all but the most basic off-the-beaten-track villages, or high-end eco-resorts, it is clear that mainstream coastal or coral reef tourism is NOT on a sustainable path. I think tourism needs to do a couple of things to move towards sustainability.

Ecological infrastructure needs to be financed and supported

3) First, and reflecting a disconnect in this summit – in the plenary on financing infrastructure, the billions of $ that could/should be leveraged into blue economy were mentioned, but the panel disagreed with the audience that ecosystem infrastructure should be the focus for investment. Yet in the blue carbon focus group the panelists focused on this – that coastal ecosystems are primary development infrastructure, and their function should be monetized. In this particular case for carbon sequestration, but it is also becoming possible in a risk/resilience context.

4) Now most coastal and coral reef tourism depends on the ecosystem infrastructure and functions – but tourism does not, in general, pay for system maintenance, and generally directly degrades the system. Blue finance could and should directly pay to support healthy ecosystems that provide the benefits we receive – and this is certainly worth the billions of $ that were mentioned for ocean infrastructure.

Monitoring -> valuation -> investment to ensure ecosystem health

5) Second, the Indian Ocean sustainability report prepared for this Summit interviewed me about dive operators monitoring coral reefs in Zanzibar. Ideally, monitoring should lead to quantifying value, and then paying for and sustaining the natural infrastructure that tourism depends.

6) I think the conventional wisdom is turning in this direction, but is it too late? We don’t yet agree on this even within the Summit. Business and economies must diversify value away from just profit and growth, and towards security – which is perhaps the financial equivalent to what we ecologists mean by sustainability. And as has been reiterated here, this should be good for employment, innovation, diversification and so much more.


Other key findings from the session:

Kenya Tourism Principal Secretary Joe Okudo
Emphasized the need for integrated planning for sustainable tourism in Kenya, as well as for regional cooperation to sustain the shared ecosystem resources among East African states – for coral reefs and marine systems as much as landscapes such as the Maasai Mara/Serengeti.

Remi Blokker explained the new technology of Ocean Thermal Energy
Ocean Thermal Energy is a novel technology that uses the temperature difference of waters 1000 metres deep and at the surface, to both generate electricity, and use for direct use in cooling and air conditioning. Still under development installations for a few hotels can be designed, up to small towns. For more on Bluerise see here.