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Mexico an Emerging ‘Beacon’ for Ecotourism Thanks to Pristine Dive Sites

Global degradation has made unspoiled ocean expanses scarce but lucrative destinations

Robust no-take restrictions of Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park in Baja California has led to an explosion of life, increasing the quantity of living organisms over 400 percent over 10 years. Photo: Ramiro Arcos-Aguilar

Researchers at Mexico’s Centro para biodiversidad Marina y la Conservación, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, and colleagues found that dive tourism in Mexico brings in nearly as much money as fisheries.

This fact could spur Mexican government officials to explore the untapped potential of dive tourism and leverage it to strengthen marine conservation efforts and help push fisheries towards sustainable paths after decades of overfishing. 

The study is the first to estimate the economic impact of Mexico’s diving industry, researchers said. The team of scientists said one of the hardest parts of the work was quantifying how many dive sites there were in Mexico.  

“The entire issue is that there is no centralized ‘anything’ when it comes to the diving sector,” said Astrid Hsu, a research associate at Scripps who is now broadening the scope of the research to consider the global-scale economics of dive tourism. 

The team relied on the internet to pull information about potential dive shops, searching sites like TripAdvisor, Google reviews, and other online business listings. They performed similar searches to gather dive site information, sticking to official dive shop websites, scientific publications, and other literature. 

“Thank goodness for the internet!” said Hsu. “Once we got those internet results, we went and visited dive shops in person, every single one of them. We wanted to make sure the results were real.”

Hsu and colleagues were amazed by what they found: after validating the results and determining the legitimacy of the claims, they found 264 diving shops and identified more than 860 sites. Most of these dive sites are visited by local small dive businesses, which make up 97 percent of Mexico’s diving industry.

The research team interviewed shop owners to gather more detailed data on operations. They found that these 264 businesses generate gross revenues ranging from $455 million to $725 million annually – comparable to those generated by artisanal and industrial Mexican fisheries combined. Though it highlights the promise of dive tourism as an aid to preserving ecosystems, the study acknowledges the importance of the fishing industry upon which so many of Mexico’s coastal citizens rely. 

“I don’t believe this is a fishing versus diving issue, but we need to build communication bridges that allow both activities to thrive,” said Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, a marine ecologist at Scripps Oceanography and project leader. “This will require a collaborative vision more than a competitive one. There is great potential in generating benefits through a business strategy that promotes and prioritizes quality of experience for tourists. This can result in higher earnings for both tourism and fishing, while reducing pressure on marine biodiversity.”

Aburto-Oropeza says that these two sectors can work hand in hand. “More often than not, divers are visiting communities where they get to enjoy the underwater wonders, and once they come out of the water, they can enjoy what the fishing sector has to offer in terms of seafood, this creates a circular economy.”

Aburto-Oropeza acknowledged that having a dive tourism sector actively involved in conservation will take some time. “People started fishing more than 5,000 years ago; Jacques Cousteau invented the water lung in the 1940s, just 70 years ago,” he said.

Overfishing has become an issue of concern in the fishing industry. Long-term effects of unsustainable fishing could be detrimental to ecosystems. 

“Science now has shown that in order for an ecosystem to function properly, it needs to have all the elements of all species of that ecosystem,” said Aburto-Oropeza. “So, if you really want to have an ecosystem working properly you cannot exploit it.”

Ninety percent of the diving sector in Mexico is made up of small family-owned businesses, and generates over half of the revenue brought in by the diving sector. The rest comes from bigger dive companies dependent on a “mass tourism” business model, which is not necessarily beneficial ecologically, according to Aburto-Oropeza. The larger companies operate in tourism hotspots such as Cancún, Puerto Vallarta, and Los Cabos. In pre-COVID times, businesses in these destinations were able to take 1,500 divers a week out diving, which drove up the likelihood of physical damage to ecosystems. “It’s the family-owned shops that care more about the environment on- and offshore,” said Aburto-Oropeza.   

These small, family-owned businesses, usually located in less popular and even remote destinations, are what should be promoted, said Aburto-Oropeza. Hsu added that these small businesses have a broader perspective when it comes to their nature-based business model. “It’s more about the operators and how they actually started getting into the business, why they are in this business, and what their future looks like.”

The study, recently published in Marine Policy, has implications for the United Nations’ goal of protecting at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030, stressing the need to balance economic growth and environmental stewardship. According to the researchers, developing a sustainable diving tourism industry will have positive economical and environmental effects beyond this sector. 

That is just one step; it is one thing to set aside areas for diving but society must also maintain and nurture them, the researchers said. The team of scientists insist that tourism needs to be accompanied by high standards of sustainability that guarantee benefits to the communities who depend on Mexico’s marine natural capital for their livelihood. 

“The marine ecotourism industry requires regulations that avoid or minimize negative ecological impacts that would eventually lead to a decrease in tourism interest in an area. Therefore, it is important to consider growth strategies that will not undermine the natural capital,” said Aburto-Oropeza.

Co-authors of the study were Ramiro Arcos-Aguilar, Fabio Favoretto, and Victoria Jiménez-Esquivel of Centro para biodiversidad Marina y la Conservación, Joy Kumagai of Scripps Oceanography, and Adán Martinez-Cruz of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The Oceans 5 Foundation, the Wyss Foundation, USA, and the National Geographic Society supported the research. 

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