The tourism generated by coral reefs is worth a staggering $36 billion every year. This latest assessment highlights the vital importance of these environments, at a time when we are at imminent risk of losing these underwater rainforests.
The research, published in the journal Marine Policy, utilized a number of different resources to make their assessment of how much tourism money is generated by coral reefs. They started by looking at the national statistics, before moving onto social media. By trawling through 20 million public photos uploaded to Flickr, the researchers were able to assess the intensity of visits to specific reefs.
They also used data from over 100,000 dive shops, dive sites, and hotels to build up an even more detailed image of how many people were visiting reefs, and where in the world they were going. This allowed them to map in high resolution the value – or most visited – of the world’s reefs, and calculate exactly how much revenue the reefs generated from tourism alone.
It turns out that over 70 countries have what the researchers are terming “million dollar reefs” because they generate at least $1 million per square kilometer annually. “These million dollar reefs are like precious works of art,” said Dr Mark Spalding, lead author of the paper, in a statement. “To have one in your back yard is, of course, a wonderful thing, but it needs to be taken care of.” Interestingly, tourism is only actually concentrated on around 30 percent of the world’s reefs.
Yet this incredible figure is only taking into account tourism, meaning that the true value of coral reefs is much, much greater. For example, they provide protection to coastal communities against storms by buffering the winds and tempering cyclones as they come off oceans. But they also provide a livelihood for tens of millions of people who depend on reefs for survival. It is thought that up to a billion people globally depend on food sourced in some way from coral reefs.
And yet the planet's reef are under grave threat. The Great Barrier Reef alone, stretching for some 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) along the east coast of Australia, is already thought to have had 30 percent of its coral killed off in the bleaching event that struck last year. With the reef currently facing a second in two years, the outcome is not looking good.
Terrifyingly, this is not unusual. The Caribbean has been rocked by bleaching events over the last few years, while the strong El Niño last year swept the Pacific, impacting reefs as disparate as Hawaii, Japan, and New Caledonia.
There is only really one way to stop the world's reefs dying – prevent climate change.