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Best Practices for Tour Operators Offering Marine Activities

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From kayaking through wetlands to scuba diving in the deep sea, marine tourism appeals to travelers with its wealth of water-related activities. Approximately 71% of Earth’s surface is covered by water, giving travelers plenty of opportunity to explore above, below, and near oceans, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ice shelves, and coastal communities.

Marine environments are also becoming increasingly vulnerable from climate change, pollution, and other manmade conditions. Tour operators can and should guide both travelers and activities in a way that has a long-lasting positive impact.

Anyone paddling in the Kenai Fjords must share the coastal shoreline with its more permanent residents. Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. © Jody Overstreet

Running an environmentally friendly marine-based company requires a business built on sustainable principles. Eliminating plastic, properly disposing of worn-out gear, and engaging in responsible activities are important, but, said Alex Brylske, president of Ocean Education International, “those are fringe activities. That’s not what has to happen in regard to building a truly sustainable business. It has to be built into the ethos of the operation.”

Though building a tour company focused on sustainability from the outset may be ideal, there are still many things operators can and should do today to offer responsible marine experiences.

Engage in low-impact marine activities

Not all water-related tourism activities are created equal. Some, like jet skiing and consumptive sport fishing, can be disruptive and even dangerous to the local environment. Tour operators interested in offering marine activities can focus instead on experiences that minimize negative impact and emphasize education and awareness. This includes activities like diving and snorkeling, watching wildlife, release fishing, sea kayaking, and canoeing.

However, even in these low-impact activities, tour operators must evaluate each environment and situation to ensure they are offering the most appropriate activities.

Think beyond the boat

Marine tourism also includes coastal areas, so tour operators need to consider how marine-related activities impact local communities.

Patronizing locally owned marinas that abide by environmental regulations and run environmentally focused programs; hiring local guides; learning from people who’ve lived in coastal communities for generations; participating in local research and coastal management initiatives. All of these examples support the coastal community and ensure economic resources stay in the area. They also provide cultural and historical context for the marine environment.

Include minimal-impact training and education prior to any marine-related experiences

Every traveler orientation program can encourage responsible practices. Provide pre-departure information about appropriate gear and clothing, such as wearing reef-friendly sunscreen. Provide more in-depth information about the general environment, what travelers can expect to see and do, and what the expectations are for a responsible marine experience.

Before diving in, reemphasize important on-site reminders. For example, travelers should avoid standing on or touching fragile marine environments like coral, feeding fish or other marine wildlife, and disturbing sediment, coral, or animals. Make it clear that travelers who don’t follow these policies won’t be permitted to participate.

Use language and explanations that emphasize the entire marine environment and ecosystem

To bring a deeper level of awareness and education into water-based experiences, tour operators need to explain and emphasize the entire marine environment and ecosystem. Many guides are knowledgeable about the marine environment, but they lose an opportunity for a deeper educational experience when they only answer the questions travelers ask. In a pleasant, recreational environment, any question is an opportunity to explain ecological concepts, what problems exist in marine ecosystems, and what travelers can do to address them.

For example, snorkelers and divers always ask, “What is that fish?” Instead of simply stating what the name of the fish is, explain what its habitat is and why it’s important in the greater ecosystem. This leads to a deeper conversation about the importance of conservation efforts and protecting marine biodiversity.

“The guide is a critical link in making sure clients not only enjoy the experience and feel safe but they are connected. By making that connection and taking a half-step more, you can actually turn their interest into advocacy,” Brylske said. In turn, this can create ripple effects long after a dive is complete or a kayak has been pulled out of the water. “This creates stewards out of people who go back home and do something about what they’ve experienced.”

13 Comments to Best Practices for Tour Operators Offering Marine Activities

  1. This article was really encouraging to read as it underlined so many practices myself and the team are following.
    Responsible Tourism plays a very large part in what we do. Through education of both guests and locals we aim to protect the environment and limit where ever possible any negative impact.
    Our guests travel the Maldives with one of our local guides who between them have years of local knowledge and expertise to share.
    Our tours are designed so that guests not only experience the natural beauty and participate in activities commonly associated with the Maldives but that they have the opportunity to learn about it’s people and culture first hand.
    Eco tourism and sustainable tourism has always been an integral part of our philosophy and part of our mission statement. As we have grown we have looked for opportunities where we can support local initiatives. We seek out ways to open up channels to allow Maldives based organisations, NGOs, marine-life charities the opportunity to interact with guests and in so doing increase their exposure to a wider audience.
    Our guests can become actively involved in conservation programs and learn how they too can be responsible during their stay in the Maldives.
    All our guests participating in ocean based activities including swimming and snorkelling are briefed using the Green Fins Guidelines on how to be responsible in the water and we regularly support clean up events, we launched #STRAWWARMV last year to encourage our partners to ditch the straw which was very successful and last week we pledged our support to #protectmaldivesseagrass

  2. JoAnna Haugen

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Ruth. I’m glad to hear your company is proactively practicing responsible marine tourism. I think it’s particularly great that your guests are participating in activities that support a clean marine environment. Thank you!

    JoAnna Haugen
    Thought Leadership Specialist

  3. I love the article and the comment from Ruth!
    I’m doing the same thing in Yucatan Mexico.
    We have mangroves that outline the entire peninsula. They are being dug out for “development”.
    I am working on a mangrove reforestation program that will help the local communities and provide a service element to my excursions.

    Thank you both for the important example you are setting.

  4. One can also lead by example, not just instruction. As a sailboat captain, it was never my intention in the beginning to be as ‘clean’ as possible, nor was it my intention to do it as a selling feature now that the general public has become more aware. It just came about– one cannot practice an eco-friendly vacation such as sailing, which necessitates a love of the ocean, and not want to help.

    I now ban plastic water bottles aboard, and bring a butterfly net for scooping up flotsam. It’s not a task to help clean, it’s become a bit of a game for my crews combining sailing skills with scooping skills. I also bring a mesh bag when snorkeling or diving to collect garbage I find on the bottom. I don’t have to ask crew members to do it, they see me and naturally help out.

  5. JoAnna Haugen

    This is great news, Sara! I think that people working from many different angles in this area can create meaningful change. Thank you for having a positive impact.

    JoAnna Haugen
    Thought Leadership Specialist

  6. JoAnna Haugen

    Thank you for your comment, Edward. I’m thrilled to hear that you and your crew have made it general practice to care for the marine environment.

    JoAnna Haugen
    Thought Leadership Specialist

  7. This is what we take it very seriously as well. Our main motto at is to run the operation in a way that creates a striking balance among, the local community in the villages, nature, local economy, real locals, and the visitors. Our clients even get a refund on bringing back their trashes back to the city after two weeks-long expeditions.

  8. JoAnna Haugen

    I’m glad to hear your company has embraced responsible tourism measures. Thank you for helping to protect the planet’s marine resources.

    JoAnna Haugen
    Media Relations
    Thought Leadership Specialist
    Adventure Travel Trade Association

  9. Good article. Provides thoughtful measures for those involved with marine base adventures. I believe that there are other pieces that make this picture more fulsome than only the environmental aspect of sustainability of marine tourism. The opportunity to discuss the overall ecosystem and the value species observed while on tour have is critical. Other aspects are the cultural impact those species have had and continue to have on adjacent communities, as well the local relationships and the local knowledge of those species become critical and crucial aspects of operating a truly sustainable operation. I have seen this create a platform where the visitor economy can truly support both the marine environment and it’s inhabitants as well as the economics of the communities nearby.

  10. JoAnna Haugen

    Thanks for your feedback, Stan. You’re absolutely right: Responsible marine tourism doesn’t stop at the water’s edge; it encompasses the communities and culture that exist in the immediate space. I’m glad to hear you’ve seen this kind of sustainable tourism in action.

    JoAnna Haugen
    Media Relations
    Thought Leadership Specialist
    Adventure Travel Trade Association

  11. Hi Joanna its a great article and i have introduced NO SINGLE USE PLASTIC onboard my CHARTER BOATS even though the glass bottles cost more we to have a net and as we fish for PELAGIC FISH ONLY we scoop up any flotsam we see on the surface. All other species such as SHARK or YOUNG FISH are released just a comment from the TIP of AFRICA HOUT BAY CAPE TOWN

  12. Great article!

    I am the National Recreation and Tourism Coordinator for the US based National Marine Sanctuary System. We are currently reframing our current “Ocean Etiquette” guidance to promote positive human behaviors to minimize wildlife disturbance, while having a beneficial visitor experience. I would love to get ATTA’s input on our draft guidelines.

    I look forward to speaking with you.

  13. Lesley Brannen

    Hello Grace,
    Thank you for your reply. We will reach out to you directly to learn more about your “Ocean Etiquette” guidelines.


    Lesley Brannen
    AdventureTravelNews Manager

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