The Great Barrier Reef. Photograph by Wavelength Reef Cruises.

By Henry A. Bartelet, Michele L. Barnes, Kim C. Zoeller, and Graeme S. Cumming.

Read the full article here.

Ecosystem-based tourism destinations are increasingly affected by environmental change so it is important to understand how this change impacts the experience of tourists. Negative impacts on tourist experience could affect the sustainability of tourism industries and businesses, as well as affect the ability of people to enjoy nature and to receive benefits in terms of wellbeing. For example, large sections of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia were affected by coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017. Corals can bleach when they are faced with changed conditions, such as higher water temperatures. The bleaching happens because the coral polyps expel the algae living in their tissue that gives them their color (and a lot of their nutrients), thereby exposing the underlying (white) skeleton.

We expect coral bleaching to affect the reputation of the Great Barrier Reef, thereby reducing tourism visitor numbers. We also expect that an experience of a degraded ecosystem is likely to be less pleasant (i.e., less satisfying) for tourists, thus providing fewer wellbeing benefits than an experience of a pristine ecosystem. However, at present, we have very little information on the effects of environmental change on ecosystem-based tourism visitor numbers and satisfaction because these relationships have not been well studied.

To address this gap, we examined these effects using publicly available data on TripAdvisor, one of the major review sites of tourism companies. We included 41 coral reef tourism operators on the Great Barrier Reef for a total of 48,000 customer reviews between 2008 and 2021.

As expected, our results show that the ecosystem impacts from coral bleaching were associated with a reduction in the demand for recreation on the GBR, as shown by the decreasing trend in visitor numbers around the time of the first bleaching event in 2016. Yet unexpectedly, we found that tourist satisfaction continued to increase throughout our sample period, despite severe coral bleaching events in the years 2016 and 2017. We found evidence pointing to several aspects of tour offerings that could have contributed to the increasing trend in satisfaction levels: organization of the tours, quality of staff, knowledge about the ecosystem, (quality of) the food and beverages provided, and the quality-price ratio.

Our finding that the benefits visitors received from recreation on the Great Barrier Reef continued to increase despite the impacts from coral bleaching conflicts with conclusions from experimental studies showing that visitors put a higher value on reefs with higher ecological quality. There might be a number of explanations for this unexpected finding, for example tourism operators might have relocated their tours to areas that were less affected by bleaching. Alternatively, tourist satisfaction with the ecosystem might have decreased, but due to improvements in other parts of the tour service, we were not able to capture this effect. Our findings provide valuable insights into the complex relationships between people and nature and the importance of better understanding adaptation effects in human societies and individuals.