The past, present, and future of incentive-based coral conservation: Sustainability of diving on the Andaman coast of Thailand




Augustine, Skye

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Rapidly changing oceans are threatening coastal ecosystems and require effective conservation efforts. On the Andaman coast of Thailand, SCUBA diving tourism is one activity that can aid conservation by providing incentives to conserve, rather than exploit, natural resources such as coral reefs. In 2011, the largest ever recorded coral bleaching event prompted the closure of many of the countries’ most popular dive sites to allow coral to recover. This unprecedented move and the resulting drop in dive tourists demonstrated the vast changes that could confront the dive industry in the face of climate change, altering its role as a vital activity within Thailand as well as its potential as a conservation tool along the coast. Ensuring the sustainability of Thailand’s coral reefs requires that we consider changes to both these components. This thesis tracks changes to the sustainability of diving as a conservation tool and predicts how these trends might vary in a future with continued climate change impacts. This research uses a wildlife tourism model proposed by Duffus and Dearden (1990) as a theoretical framework to examine changes to diving over time. A standardized questionnaire was administered to diving tourists in 2012 and compared against a similar study completed in 2000 to evaluate development and shifting sustainability of diving. Additionally, the ecotourism values and climate change perceptions of divers were measured to explore the present and future conservation potential. This work found that the conservation value of the dive industry has declined and will continue to do so without management interventions. Specifically, the specialization level of divers has declined between the years, yielding a population that has low skill level, generalized motivations, few ecotourism values, is easily satisfied, and spend less money than divers in 2000. Currently, there are many niche companies that all cater to mainstream tourists. However, within this broad industry, this research identified only one diving company that practices all of The International Ecotourism Societies’ principles for ecotourism operators, suggesting that diving on the Andaman coast is not an ecotourism industry. We anticipate that in the face of continuing climate change impacts, there will be a significant loss in clientele, but demand for diving will remain within the generalist divers on the Andaman coast. These findings provide clear evidence for shifting baselines, a phenomenon that will exacerbate declines in the conservation potential of the industry. Despite this, our results show that most divers are concerned about the impacts of climate change and are interested in learning about it, suggesting that there is potential to increase the educational value of the dive industry, and simultaneously boost its conservation contributions. To do so will require the efforts of both protected area managers and dive operators.



conservation, marine, Thailand, Andaman, comparative, diving, incentive-based conservation, wildlife based tourism, coral reefs, ecotourism, climate change, sustainability