Best Practices for Sea Turtle Conservation Tourism

By BRAD NAHILL

Conservation tourism has benefited sea turtle programs and local communities in a few places, yet it remains relatively underused as a sea turtle conservation methodology. Although an estimated 10 million people spend more than US$1.25 billion every year to see whales and dolphins, the World Wildlife Fund study titled Money Talks: Economic Aspects of Marine Turtle Use and Consumption documented fewer than 200,000 annual tourist visits to sea turtle sites worldwide, roughly half of which were to only five sites.

Tourism can offer people firsthand experiences with nature and with the people and organizations working to protect it. Revenues generated by such tourism can greatly benefit conservation efforts and local economies when developed successfully. Such benefits include securing revenue for conservation programs through visitor fees and donations, providing alternative sources of income for residents as guides, increasing community goodwill and support for conservation because of the patronage of local businesses by tourists, using volunteer tourist human power (many tourists like to help out) to monitor nesting beaches and other habitats, and moving people toward more sustainable lifestyles and involvement in conservation efforts through life-changing experiences with wildlife.

Turtle-based tourism can also have negative impacts if not properly controlled. Those effects include habitat degradation through tourism development; an increase in trash, particularly plastic bags; boat strikes from marine-based tours; and harassment of nesting and basking turtles, which can affect natural behaviors. Furthermore, tourism to turtle habitats can generate relatively little financial support for conservation programs in places where legal protections and direct connections between tourism operators and local organizations are lacking. Those unintended effects are important to consider when developing a tourism program.

One of the most crucial steps in developing a tourism program is to pick the right tourist markets on which to focus, because not all tourists have the same interests and needs. Successful turtle tourism projects aim to attract the most appropriate types of tourists for their site and capacity. Types of tourist markets and their needs include the following:

Adventure travelers. A fast-growing but competitive market, adventure travelers look for hands-on participation and small groups. Those travelers often look for places with a diversity of activities. They will pay higher prices but require higher-quality accommodations and service.

Volunteer tourists. Such travelers tend to be younger and more active, and they require a lower level of service and accommodations than other travelers but are very sensitive to price. Setting accurate expectations is key. Some organizations have found they get higher-quality volunteers if they are open about the challenges at the location. Groups who offer daily rates of US$30 and below tend to be more successful at recruiting volunteers.

Domestic travelers. Some turtle projects have developed successful programs for local markets, including Nature Seekers in Trinidad. Those travelers tend to come just for one activity, such as a night beach walk, and they spend less money in the community, which limits the benefits. However, such programs are easier to set up and maintain and can help build political support for conservation efforts. The key is that the turtle project needs to be accessible to major population centers.

Educational travelers. Student groups can be an effective market because they tend to stay multiple days and can adapt to lower-quality accommodations. Several companies have successfully marketed to schools for turtle tourism, including EcoTeach and Ecology Project International. Working with companies is important because education groups require more supervision and a strong focus on safety; finding schools is also challenging. This area is very competitive, so offering additional services such as educational curriculum or other service activities can give you an edge. Be careful when negotiating with student travel companies; some offer very low payments in exchange for volunteer support.

In addition to choosing the right market, the following best practices can help ensure success in developing or growing a conservation tourism program:

Form strategic partnerships. Work with companies that have strong records of supporting conservation, including tour operators, hotels, transportation companies, and tourism offices.

Set realistic expectations. Be accurate in your descriptions of how much tourists can participate in your work and about the level of accommodations and meals.

Use low-cost marketing tools. Social media networks such as Facebook are increasingly important in tourism marketing and are very cost-effective. Also, many ecotourism and volunteering websites (including www.seeturtles.org) will post information about conservation tourism programs for free.

Set guidelines and monitor. Determine what rules work best for your site (for example, group size and length of time with a turtle) and make sure you have enough staff members to manage the group. Consider setting aside both areas and times of night in which no tourists are allowed and studying the impacts of tourists on nesting activities.

Foster local involvement. Use local businesses and services to allow tourism benefits to be spread widely and to provide a more authentic experience.

Follow up. Get contact information from tourists, and encourage them to join your group on Facebook and to share your information with their friends.