Coral Bleaching Threatens Luxury Travel Company

Scuba diving – a $30 billion dollar tourism business worldwide – is threatened by rising sea temperatures. The luxury travel company, Kuoni, recognizes this threat and is taking steps to satisfy their environmentally-conscious customers.

Over the last six years, I have traveled around the world to scuba dive on stunning reefs from the Rainbow River in Florida to the Carribean Sea off the coast of Bonaire.

Source: personal photo. Rainbow River Florida, 2015.
Source: personal photo. Rainbow River Florida, 2015.

Coral reefs offer not only the most diverse ecosystems on our planet, but also sustain a $30 billion dollar scuba diving tourism business worldwide.1 For instance, “according to a report by the Key West chamber of commerce, tourists visiting the Florida Keys in the US generate at least $3 billion dollars in annual income, while Australia’s Great Barrier Reef generates well over $1 billion per year.”1 However, climate change threatens both the health of reefs and the tourism sustained by reefs and the accompanying wildlife.  Rising sea temperatures – measured at a 0.1-degree Celsius increase in the past decade – have led to the death of coral reefs through a process called coral bleaching.2 The climate risk to coral reefs is correlated with a risk to diving tourism; as reef ecosystems diminish, tourists will be less likely to travel to effected diving destinations as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Tourist Holiday Diving Preferences

Dive Holiday Preferences Tourists
More likely to choose ‘environmentally friendly’ operation 90%
Plan holiday according to dive experience expected 79%
Importance of climate change issues in choosing an operation 59%
Importance of management of climate change in selecting holiday destination 59%
Often talk about coral reef health and fish numbers with other dive tourists 76%

Source: Data excerpted from Marshall, Nadine A. , Marshall, Paul A. , Abdulla, Ameer , Rouphael, Tony and Ali, Amr, “Preparing for climate change: recognising its early impacts through the perceptions of dive tourists and dive operators in the Egyptian Red Sea” (Current Issues in Tourism, 2010), p. 7, Table 1.

Kuoni Travel is one company that will be negatively affected by coral bleaching worldwide. Kuoni Travel is a UK organization that specializes in “luxury and tailor-made travel”; the tourism company was voted World’s Leading Luxury Touring Operator in 2014 by World Traveler awards.3 The company offers tourism packages to multiple scuba diving destinations in Africa, Asia, Australia and beyond. The environmental impacts of climate change on reefs—including “biodiversity losses, loss of coral cover and reduced reef aesthetic”— potentially lowers the destination appeal for scuba divers to effected locations.4 The decline in destination appeal ultimately threatens Kuoni’s business through diminishing tourism interest. This conclusion was supported by Kuoni’s corporate responsibility assessment:

“A destination with a poor image for sustainability and climate friendliness could rapidly decline as a preferred destination with tourists with a strong environmental conscience. In contrast, by changing operating practices and with the support of appropriate communication activities, particular tourism businesses, destinations or sectors can actually position themselves to benefit from changes in tourist’ attitudes rather than suffering negative impacts.”5

Kuoni strategically recognizes the threat of climate change, while also recognizing the potential opportunity a mitigation plan that leverages tourist attitudes presents.

To blunt the impact of climate change on Kuoni’s tourism business and play to environmentally conscious customers, the travel company has made a commitment to “measuring and reducing the carbon footprint of [their] operations, building adaptive capacity in the destinations and encouraging [their] customers to reduce their climate impact by offsetting their flight emissions.”5 In 2008, Kuoni partnered with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to protect coral reefs in Egypt and the Maldives, two popular tourism diving destinations. The collaboration has completed the following steps to mitigate the effects of climate change on coral reefs5:

  • Implemented four coral reef monitoring training workshops for 40 marine biologists and dive guides across dive resorts
  • Created five monitoring protocols, including Coral Point Count and BleachWatch
  • Built four island and reef habitats maps outlining reef biodiversity
  • Developed three reef management plans

The steps Kuoni and the IUCN are taking to mitigate the effects of climate change on coral reefs in Egypt and the Maldives are commendable. To further their impact, I recommend Kuoni scale their reef monitoring training workshops and monitoring protocols to additional diving resorts across their destination spectrum. Further, I recommend Kuoni include a carbon footprint associated with each travel offering to capture the environmental impact of customer flight travel and activity. To extend the customer awareness approach, Kuoni should offer customer discounts on trips that minimize carbon impact i.e. selecting a regional destination over a foreign destination to reduce flight emissions. By scaling their mitigation campaign and improving consumer awareness, Kuoni could improve their impact on coral reef health and benefit from the environmentally supportive attitudes of consumers.

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Endnotes

  1. World Wildlife Federation, “Coral Reefs: Importance,”http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/blue_planet/coasts/coral_reefs/coral_importance/, accessed November 2016.
  2. National Geographic, “Sea Temperature Rise,” http://ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/explore/pristine-seas/critical-issues-sea-temperature-rise/, accessed November 2016.
  3. Kuoni, “Our Difference,” http://www.kuoni.co.uk/our-difference, accessed November 2016.
  4. Marshall, Nadine A. , Marshall, Paul A. , Abdulla, Ameer , Rouphael, Tony and Ali, Amr, “Preparing for climate change: recognising its early impacts through the perceptions of dive tourists and dive operators in the Egyptian Red Sea”, Current Issues in Tourism, 2010, iFirst article, 1–12, accessed November 2016.
  5. Kuoni, “Joining Forces With the IUCN to Protec Coral Reefs,” http://cr.kuoni.com/corp-responsibility2013/natural-resources/coral-reef-protection, accessed November 2016.

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12 thoughts on “Coral Bleaching Threatens Luxury Travel Company

  1. I too am a keen SCUBA diver so it is great to see companies paying attention to this aspect of climate change. Having spent significant time in Australia and visited the Great Barrier reef a number of times, I have seen the impact coral bleaching can have on the enjoyment of divers and therefore future revenues of the company. However, I wonder whether the company can really drive a significant impact in this area, given how global the climate change issue is. Personally, I feel that some of the suggestions for next steps may put the companies financial strength at risk while having little impact on the problem as a whole. Instead, I would suggest taking high power / wealth individuals such as mining CEOs and politicians on trips to see the damage first hand, as that would be likely to influence them into making changes.

  2. I also have developed a fondness for scuba diving and snorkeling, and like Cathal was completely blown away by the Great Barrier Reef when I visited Australia two summers ago. I challenge you to think about the impact of snorkeling / scuba diving and the damage participants can have on the environment around them, from unintentionally kicking the very sensitive reefs to wearing toxic sunscreens which alter the ecosystem. How can virtual reality change the scuba driving experience to preserve the reefs where they currently stand?

  3. Great analysis! Thank you for sharing Paige. It appears you are personally vested in this issue given your passion for diving.
    It is unfortunate that coral reef bleaching poses a credible threat to coastal communities that rely on tourism as a source of economic growth. The impact on Kuoni’s revenue base is clearly going to be severe. I thought I would share some ideas with you:
    1) Given the financial impact from increasing awareness and launching monitoring workshops, do you think it would be worthwhile for Kuoni to pursue a targeted strategy by focusing on 4-5 key markets – depth over breadth?
    2) Do you think Kuoni can leverage the long-standing partnerships it has developed with the resorts / hotels to encourage ecotourism and effective coral reef monitoring? Kuoni can also gain insight from the research done by marine biologists hired by some of these resorts
    3) It is encouraging to see increasing consciousness among divers / holiday-goers to select environmentally friendly destinations. Given this level of awareness among customers, do you think it would be feasible for Kuoni to charge a green tax on tourists or increase the pricing on its holiday packages in order to fund some of its climate change initiatives?
    4) How strong are the tourism lobbies in some of these markets? Would Kuoni and the tourist resorts be able to lobby for government funding to protect coral reefs?

  4. Hi Paige, thanks for this analysis–and for the passion you bring to it.

    It seems there are two main strategies here; one to help climate change overall (decreasing their own carbon footprint), and a second one to help reef health more directly. On that second strategy, I have a friend from college who is doing interesting work, through a company called CoralVita. http://www.coralvita.co/

    They try to re-grown coral reefs directly by incubating coral in coral farms and then transplanting it into existing/dying reefs. They focus on growing types of coral that are more resilient.

    I’d be curious what you think of this option, and whether re-growing coral can be part of the solution.

    Thanks Paige!

    Spencer

  5. I can see the business case for this with the vast majority of tourists responding that eco-friendly is a big decision driver. But insofar as the actions they’ve taken are purely control based – as in certifying and monitoring further coral damage – they face an inherent supply risk, especially since climate change is a global concern and their actions alone will not be sufficient to prevent further change. As Spencer noted above, is there a case for a more pro-active measure to ensure proper supply, similar to the IKEA case? Another option in addition to re-planting coral would be to perhaps use artificial coral. Man-made reefs can generate similar effects to biodiversity and are easier to implement than farmed coral – is this something Kuoni should be investing in perhaps?

  6. SO many interesting facts! First, I love your personal pictures (I would love to learn how to scuba dive and then go with you sometime). Second, I had no idea scuba diving was a $30B industry – that’s much larger than I would have expected! It’s incredibly import to protect the biodiversity of our coral reefs – could the company do more to build awareness among the general population (rather than just their customers)?

  7. Fantastic post! I still remember when I did scuba diving in so-called “diving paradise” of Koh Samui and Koh Tao in Thailand, many diving locations had already been impacted either by local pollution or by climate change. I could imagine local scuba diving agencies are really having a hard time attracting customers to go back to these places. I agree that luxury traveling like scuba diving is extremely vulnerable to climate change. I am wondering if it’s possible for travel agencies to include more educational pieces into their service to arise awareness of climate change impact. I am also super curious about customers’ reaction to these educational pieces.

  8. Really enjoyed reading this post. I recently discovered scuba diving while working in the Philippines over the summer. I fell in love. I was blown away by the world underwater. There is so much to explore, to appreciate, and to protect.

    Though coral bleaching is a significant threat to healthy reefs and to the scuba diving industry, we shouldn’t forget the impact of (1) improper garbage disposal, (2) careless diving, and (3) man-made destruction for commercial benefit on coral reefs. While diving in the Philippines, I observed the impact of these activities on the coral reefs. While diving we often discovered candy wrappers and other plastic garbage stuck in the reefs and observed sustained, irreversible damage to reefs from irresponsible diving. PADI and other scuba organizations are making a great effort to educate divers on responsible diving practices and on garbage pick-up.

    The most frustrating impact I observed was the man-made destruction for commercial purposes. The BBC video below documents Chinese fishermen intentionally destroying coral reef in the South China Sea to harvest sea clams and sea turtles. It’s pretty devastating coverage. Though coral bleaching will definitely impact the luxury vacation market, I worry more about the impact of these commercial activities on the healthy ecosystem of our oceans.

    http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35106631

  9. Not too surprisingly, we wrote our articles on very similar subject matter. I took the angle of a scuba equipment manufacturer (Mares) and what they could do to combat the same issue. In reading your article, I realized that travel and equipment companies should team up and sponsor awareness initiatives. Mares is honestly doing very little to combat climate change, so it sounds like Kuoni is way ahead of the game here. Mares could benefit from learning from Kuoni’s tactics. One thing that Mares does seem to do better, however, is they have a very active blog with educational articles in addition to diving tips.

  10. Love this post! I spent a semester conducting marine biology research in Australia (this involved lots of scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef!), and it broke my heart to learn that we may no longer have colorful coral reefs in the near future. According to this CNN article published earlier this year, over 90% of the Great Barrier Reef is currently suffering from coral bleaching (http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/20/asia/great-barrier-reef-coral-bleaching/). Coral reefs are not only sources of joy for scuba divers like us, but more importantly, serve as habitats for various species and are thus critical for their survival. I think it’s great that Kuoni is taking proactive measures to mitigate it’s carbon footprint, but unfortunately I think that the extent of their impact is limited in preserving coral reefs. I don’t have a perfect solution, but I think that ultimately it is up to us, as a society, to change our behavior and start taking better care of our planet.

  11. Super interesting post Paige! Kuoni is clearly doing extensive work in monitoring coral bleaching which is important in measuring the impact of climate change over time.

    I came across the Australian government’s plan to combat coral bleaching (1). Given the interest of tourists in visiting environmentally friendly destinations, Kuoni could perhaps partner with the Australian government to launch initiatives in which tourists could be active participants. The plan encourages “reef users” to work towards protecting the Great Barrier Reef. In this way, Kuoni could target environmentally conscious tourists and at the same time contribute to preserving the rich biodiversity and beauty of coral reefs in Australia. It would be great to hear your thoughts on this!

    (1)http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/managing-the-reef/threats-to-the-reef/climate-change/marine-park-management/climate-change-action-plan

  12. Paige – I agree with Cathal. I think that while the initiatives of Kuoni are impressive and clearly show a company taking responsibility for their impact on the environment, perhaps the synergy of the impact of clients could be harnessed. Perhaps Kuoni could begin a company internal initiative to:
    1. Identify non-profits and key drivers of coral protection outside of Kuoni for partnership – establish key partnerships with effective regional non-profits.
    2. Raise awareness about coral bleaching from those who witness the effects firsthand everyday (instructors/staff) to those who are participating and seeing it for the first time (divers).
    3. Drive vacationers to raise money into these non-profits at the conclusion of a tour.

    Perhaps this partnership could drive increased funds for non-profits at Kuoni’s point of sale – a time that the customer or charity minded vacationer will have the effects of coral bleaching most embedded in their mind.

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