Coral reefs are one of the most productive ecosystems on this planet. These reefs are not just home to thousands of species but are also a source of numerous goods and services for us, which include recreational opportunities like diving and snorkeling, tourism, and fisheries.
It is due these beneficial uses that coral reefs are overexploited and are facing a huge number of anthropogenic threats.
There are over 100 different territories worldwide where coral reef dependent tourism is growing. It is also rapidly generating much needed employment and foreign exchange of around US$35 billion annually.
How does Tourism Affect Coral Reefs?
The Effects of Tourism on coral reefs can be divided into those caused by Recreational activities (like Scuba diving) and Infrastructure-related (like hotels and resorts).
If you’re interested in other threats of coral reefs, I’d Recommend reading 10 Major Threats to Coral Reefs.
Effects of Tourist Recreational Activities on Corals
1. Physical Trauma
The biggest attraction of coral reef for tourists is the recreational opportunity. Most common of these activities are scuba diving and snorkeling.
During these activities corals are damaged due to skeletal breakage which is caused by divers moving and trampling on these reefs carrying their equipment. Corals with branches are relatively more at risk compared to other corals.
A study in 2014 found that corals that were exposed to divers had nine times more chances of physical damage and lacerations. This same study also raised concerns about another serious issue; these affected corals were four times more susceptible to skeletal eroding band disease.
Regeneration of coral reefs after physical injury takes up to 2 months, and this provides an ample window of time for the invasion of pathogens and ciliates, leading to diseases.
Another associated problem is the accumulation of sediments on coral reefs via the shoes of people coming from the land.
The sediments smothers the inlets of coral reefs and causes tissue necrosis in corals. It has been reported that corals used for recreational activities have 12 times more necrosis (death of tissue) from corals as compared to other corals.
The swimmers and snorkelers also quite frequently break corals via their swimsuit fins.
Another threat due to tourism is boating. Boats can directly damage coral reefs by breaking them, but the most serious threat comes from the anchors.
Anchors and heavy chains, especially from large boats and yachts dislodge and break corals when released into the water. These also damage the breeding grounds of fishes when they are lowered.
This is evident from the study that found 39% smaller coral colonies in areas with high anchoring activity and these same areas also had 65% less fish density. Anchoring can also damage the habitats that are near the reefs such as sea grasses, and this kills off many other marine species.
The propellers of boat engines generate waves in water that stir up the bottom of sea in shallows and increase sedimentation on coral reefs, killing them eventually. Boats are also a source of pollutants like oil and paint residues that may cause additional damage to reefs.
With the introduction of tourism in an area, there is an increased demand of fishing for both consumption and as a recreation resulting in overfishing which disrupts the coral ecosystem.
As the tourism takes root with time there is increased local competition for exploitation of fishing resources and so the people shift to disastrous fishing techniques like blast fishing and bottom trawling.
Such practices come at a huge risk of directly damaging and destroying coral reefs. This is not just endangering coral reefs but also the marine plants and animals.
Infrastructure-related Effects of Tourism on Corals
One of the pillars of tourism industry is development that includes roads, hotels and so on. When the tourist attraction is coral reefs the development subsequently takes place on the coastline.
These developments result in extensive sedimentation that washes into the water and results in algal bloom, suffocation, bleaching and eventually death.
6. Waste Disposal
As a result of infrastructure developments, eroded materials from constructions, urbanization, and expansion of industrial zones finds its way into the water due to runoff, contributing to the significantly deteriorating water quality and alarming degradation of the bay environment and ecosystems.
According to United Nations Environment Program, “There is evidence that a very large percentage of the sewage generated by hotels is discharged in coastal waters without adequate treatment”.
Sewerage and toxic chemicals in the water have two effects: they kill coral organisms after being ingested and they lead to algal dominance reducing the growth potential of corals.
In many places; to facilitate the tourists, the locals directly harvest corals from the sea. These are then either sold in original forms as souvenirs or are processed into jewelry and ornaments.
The demand for such products from sea has been increasing in recent times which has led to sharp increase in exploitation of not only corals but also other marine species in the ecosystem.
There is no doubt that coral reefs directly or indirectly play a crucial role in human lives. Quite a few countries have been using coral reefs as a foundation of their economies but now it seems our actions have come to haunt us.
Research has shown that corals are being degraded at alarming rates and it is imperative that we move towards sustainable practices right now to stop the worsening conditions.
It is vital for people to change their behaviors which can be targeted by proper awareness campaigns and sensitizing the tourism industry stakeholders about ways to preserve natural resources.
The authorities should focus on enforcing more strict regulations to curb detrimental activities that have been overexploiting coral reefs.
Emphasis should be put on encouraging ecotourism in these regions by local communities and there should be promotion of environmentally-friendly tourism to support the preservation of coral reef ecosystems.