Conservation And Economic Development: A Case Study With Whale Shark Tourism
Ecotourism is often touted as a win-win conservation method, benefitting both the environment and the economy. However, not all ecotourism attractions are created equal. In Oslob, a coastal city in the Philippines, fishermen have been provisioning (feeding) whale sharks to attract them to their waters. Boats then take tourists out to see the whale sharks, scuba with them, and see them up close.
Is this actually helping the cause of whale shark conservation, or is it just an exploitative tourist trap? Or is it perhaps both? This essay examines this question from a utilitarian perspective, taking the interests of both humans and animals into account.
In-person surveys and TripAdvisor reviews were used to determine tourists’ attitudes toward Oslob’s whale shark tourism and assess their demographic information. Survey recipients were asked to gauge their willingness to return as well as their likelihood to recommend the tour to others. Recipients were also asked to rate their support for feeding whale sharks to attract them to boats and their willingness to pay for a provisioned tour versus a non-provisioned tour.
TripAdvisor comments were grouped based on overall star-rating, with 1 and 2 stars being negative, 3 being neutral, and 4 and 5 being positive. An additional analysis was done using only comments that mentioned ethical concerns, grouping them by star-ranking in the same way. Comments that featured justifications for participation despite ethical concerns were grouped according to justification (economic benefit, human enjoyment, animal welfare, etc.).
Although government records show that the majority of Oslob tourists are from the Philippines, the survey responses and TripAdvisor reviews were mostly from foreign tourists. Most were female, young, low-income, and had no shark-watching or scuba experience. Furthermore, most were only in Oslob for one day, and the majority would not have come if it were not for the whale shark tours. Overall, the vast majority of tourists responded positively to the experience, though foreigners were less enthusiastic than nationals.
Foreigners were much less likely to support feeding whale sharks than nationals were, but overall opinions were mostly either positive or neutral/unsure. About 27% of TripAdvisor reviews mentioned some kind of ethical concern, but most of them still gave a positive rating. Several justifications were given, the most common of which were that the animals were free to leave, the local economy is dependent on tourism, the tour was an enjoyable experience, and tourism gives an incentive to protect the sharks rather than harm them.
On the positive side for humans, Oslob’s whale shark tourism industry has been a literal lifesaver for the city. Most of its residents were previously living on less than $1 per day, whereas now they can afford education, medical treatment, and well-built homes. Without the tourism boom, this socioeconomic development may not have occurred. Furthermore, most tourists seem to enjoy the experience quite a bit, and human enjoyment cannot be completely discounted.
On the negative side, this recent economic growth may not be sustainable. The legality of feeding whale sharks is still being debated in the Philippines. If it is ruled illegal, then the sharks may leave Oslob’s waters as their provisioned food source dries up. Announcing an end to the practice may cause tourist businesses to focus on making as much money as they can now, given an uncertain future. Sharks in the area have already shown signs that they are changing their behavior in response to tourism, and it could be exacerbated by a push for more ahead of making the practice illegal.
Relatedly, some fear that the sharks could become dependent on human feeding (or perhaps already are), which could affect their health and survivability in more wild waters. While the health status of the sharks is not currently known, tests of similar animals in similar environments have shown that they can become stressed and ill from tourist attention. Furthermore, many of the supposed benefits of ecotourism, such as increased scientific access and conservation awareness, have not been recorded in Oslob. Little information is given to the tourists about the threats to whale sharks, and the only scientific research is studying how they are affected by tourism.
The authors conclude that this particular ecotourism attraction should be considered unethical, as the only known benefits have come in the form of human enjoyment and unsustainable economic growth. Until more research is done to determine the ecological effect of provisioned whale shark tourism, the industry should not be supported. Ecotourism can be a benefit to both humans and animals, but commodifying the environment is inherently risky, with many potential unintended consequences. Strict regulations and best practices must be in place to prevent environmental damage. In the case of Oslob’s whale shark tourism, these steps haven’t been taken.