The  Caribbean is more dependent on tourism than any other region across the globe, and a new study by The Nature Conservancy and JetBlue shows the powerful value of coral reef ecosystems to both the tourism industry and to the to the economic success and stability of the region. This study reveals and quantifies the extraordinary value that coral reefs contribute to the Caribbean economy through reef-adjacent activities alone, and the direct connection that reefs have on tourism across the region.The study found that reef-associated tourism is estimated at more than $7.9 billion annually from over 11 million visitors. This accounts for 23 percent of all tourism spending and is equivalent to more than 10 percent of the region’s gross domestic product. This new study, also supported by Microsoft and the World Travel & Tourism Council, reveals and quantifies the significant value that coral reefs contribute to Caribbean economy through reef-adjacent activities such as sailing, diving and snorkeling beach-based activities and the direct connection that reefs have on tourism.

A project summary can be found here, while the full report can be found here.

“Our work shows the direct correlation between coral reefs and reef-adjacent tourism and the economic success and stability of the region,” said Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability and ESG, JetBlue. “The Caribbean and Latin America account for one-third of JetBlue’s flying, therefore the health of this region is directly tied to our bottom line. It’s time for conservation organizations and the tourism industry to work together on solutions to conserve the region’s resources.”

The study, analyzed reef-adjacent tourism, or the component of the sector that depends on coral reefs but does not make direct use of them in the way that diving or snorkeling does. Reef-adjacent tourism value comes from beach activities, coastal views, delicious seafood and tranquil waters for swimming and boating—many of the reasons people flock to the Caribbean.

“Scientists estimate that living corals in the Caribbean have declined over 60% in just the last three decades alone. The Nature Conservancy is currently deploying innovative solutions to restore and protect coral reefs throughout the region, but we must move fast and we must move smart to outpace the rate of degradation” commented Dr. Luis Solórzano, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean. “The Caribbean is known as paradise to so many travelers from around the globe, and it is our responsibility to protect the natural wonders that helped it earn this reputation.”

The study builds upon previous work by Spalding et al. (2016) to quantify tourism spending and visitation to coral reefs worldwide. The methodology was adapted to include data from one of the most prevalent ways people communicate today – social media. Social content was analyzed using machine-learning, a type of artificial intelligence by Microsoft. More than 86,000 social images and nearly 6.7 million text posts were analyzed for identifiers that indicated reef-adjacent activities. The social media metrics were layered with traditionally sourced data from government agencies and the tourism industry, such as surveys from visitor centers, sales figures reported by travel-associated businesses and economic data from government accounting systems.

Other key findings of this study that directly impact the tourism industry include:

  • The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, benefit from visitor spending of more than $1 billion per year. This tourism revenue is directly linked to coral reefs.
  • The Bahamas, Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico receive the equivalent of more than one million visitors per year, which is directly linked to coral reefs.
  • The top 10 percent highest-value reef areas generate more than $5.7 million and 7,000 visitors per square kilometer per year. These reefs are scattered in almost every country and territory in the region and have a large proportion of high-value reefs, each with an average spend value equal to over $3 million per square kilometer per year.
  • The countries most dependent on reef-adjacent tourism include many small, developing island nations, like Antigua & Barbuda, Bermuda and Saint Martin, where there may be relatively few other options for earning income outside of reef-associated tourism.
  • Only 35 percent of overall Caribbean reefs are positioned where they do not draw revenue for the region’s tourism sector, indicating that there are little to no options to increase reef-associated activities to new areas. Most of the reefs not used for tourism are in remote locations not accessible by air travel.

The results of this study shed light on the overall reliance on coral reefs in the region to generate income and stabilize economies. Results point to the fragility of the tourism industry in the Caribbean as the impacts of climate change and other threats to coral reefs, like overfishing, pollution and coastal development continue to escalate. As tourism is an essential pillar of all Caribbean economies, threats to the industry translate to grave economic and social risks.

Photo Credit: Tim Calver