In Mexico, Dive Tourism Is Worth as Much as Fishing

Researchers estimate diving and snorkeling bring in up to $725 million annually

Small family-run dive tour operations in Mexico have been found to give more back to their communities than large foreign-owned businesses. (Luis Javier Sandoval / VW Pics / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
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This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.

Mexico’s warm waters and diverse marine ecosystems make it a popular destination for divers from around the world. But with most dive tourism operations being mom-and-pop shops scattered across the country, nobody knew just how much money dive tourism was generating each year. Now, a new study finds that Mexico’s dive tourism industry is much, much larger than previously thought—pulling in as much revenue as the country’s industrial and artisanal fishing industries combined.

“The total value is surprising—even though it’s often not a surprise for the people who are living in these places,” says Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor, a resource economist at the University of British Columbia who was not involved in the research. “But when you see all the numbers added up, you go, Wow, this is huge.”

Based on surveys, the researchers estimated the dive tourism industry generates between US $455-million and $725-million annually, comparable to revenues generated by Mexico’s fishing industries.

The finding lays the groundwork for better coordination between and advocacy by members of the dive tourism industry, and provides support for greater marine conservation in Mexico says Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, a marine biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego who worked on the study. As Mexico’s dive tourism industry recovers from a year of shutdown during the pandemic, the study is also prompting conversations about how to better manage tourism in coastal communities.

Aburto-Oropeza has visited dive sites throughout Mexico and Latin America, diving both for research and for his hobby of underwater photography. “One day I woke up and said, ‘If dive sites generate money just by bringing in divers, why are they not protected?’” He realized that more data was needed to make the case for better management, and embarked on the study.

Mexico’s dive economy was so understudied that prior to the report there was no comprehensive listing of all the dive sites or tour operators in the country. That’s in stark contrast to the well-organized fishing industry, in which Mexico’s National Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture regularly studies and publishes reports on the status of fisheries and the industry’s annual take and revenues, notes Aburto-Oropeza.

“When you don’t see the size of your business, the probability that you will be empowered or inspired to protect these areas is minimal,” he says.

The researchers started by building Mexico’s first database of dive sites and dive tour operators, compiling 264 tour operators and 860 dive sites around the country in 2019. They divided the list into four regions: the Baja Pacific and Gulf of California, the South Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Yucatan Peninsula. They then started contacting operators one by one—often conducting surveys door to door.

The researchers also looked more closely at the business structures of the dive tour operators, and studied how they affected their communities. Around 91 percent of the dive operators were small family-run businesses, serving an average of 74 tourists weekly. The other nine percent were large businesses that served an average of 1,600 tourists per week, mainly snorkelers.

Aburto-Oropeza and his colleagues found that the kind of mass ocean tourism offered by the large businesses poses a greater risk to reefs and marine ecosystems while also offering fewer benefits to local communities. Large businesses were more likely to be owned by foreigners than Mexican nationals. And because they rely on selling large volumes of cheap snorkeling tours, rather than smaller and more costly scuba excursions, they also generate less revenue per tourist, the researchers found.

Aburto-Oropeza says the research is already having an impact in Mexico, where dive operators have taken the first steps toward organizing their industry. And while the pandemic led to major revenue losses, it’s also prompted discussion about how dive tourism can reopen in a more sustainable way, such as by managing tourism numbers to avoid overcrowding.

“The pandemic reaffirmed the importance of a more political voice for this sector,” Aburto-Oropeza says. “Some of the lessons, especially for the small towns, is how to start thinking of better ways to manage tourism, and strategies to grow in the coming years.”

This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.

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