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September 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Too Many Divers in Raja Ampat?

how “Instagram Tourism” is ruining dive destinations

from the September, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Ten short years ago, we released the guidebook, Diving Indonesia's Raja Ampat. At that time, only 3,000 tourists visited the area annually, and the consensus among conservationists was that more were needed. Tourism brought much-needed media attention and money to the region -- economic development that was sustainable as well as directly beneficial to the local population -- as opposed to the previous focus on extractive activities, like mining and forestry. Tourists scattered throughout the region also functioned much like a police force, their sheer presence alone discouraging illegal activities, ranging from bomb fishing to shark-finning. Due to aggressive management and the creation of a system of Marine Protected Areas, fish biomass has increased dramatically during the past decade.

Tourists and nesting turtles on Coast Rica's Ostional Beach

Last year, tourism numbers exceeded 30,000, a tenfold increase in 10 years. Although these numbers hardly qualify as mass tourism, some of Raja Ampat's reefs are already under threat even with the current level of tourism. In 10 years' time, the threats to the reefs could be severe. Already visitors are complaining about trash, pollution and other environmental abuses, too many divers and liveaboards on specific sites, diver and snorkeler damage at popular locations . . . the list goes on.

"Instagram tourism" has changed the world's wild (and not so wild) places. In most cases, it's not for the better -- at least from a conservation point of view.

Thailand recently extended its initial one-year closure of Maya Bay (the site where Leonardo DiCaprio's film The Beach was filmed) to three years. Tourism there was killing the corals, and the number of visitors simply overwhelmed resources and infrastructure -- but the initial one-year closure was so effective that the government decided for the three-year extension to encourage even stronger recovery of the reefs there.

In a similar move, Boracay Island in the Philippines has also been closed while regulations and infrastructure are improved (Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte called the area a "cesspool" last year). Meanwhile, authorities at Ostional Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica have been addressing how best to manage an overwhelming influx of tourists during the "arribada," the annual arrival of hundreds of thousands of olive ridley sea turtles that use the beach for nesting. These are only a few of the places around the world suffering from too many tourists, and far too many of them are behaving badly.

Mark Erdmann, vice president of Asia-Pacific Marine Programs at Conservation International, was recently interviewed about the controversial closing of Maya Beach. He praised the bold move of Thailand's government and spoke of similar problems in Indonesia and the impact of too many tourists in Bali and Komodo National Park, the latter being a place where local authorities are discussing potential closures. The problem reaches all the way to Raja Ampat, where some sites are already overwhelmed.

Erdmann feels limiting tourist numbers will be an increasingly common policy reaction from governments needing to respond to degradation from rapid increases in tourism. "Despite our best efforts with the government to put in place policies to ensure sustainable tourism development in Raja Ampat back in 2008-2009, we simply never anticipated the sudden huge increases in visitation (and related environmental pressures) that happen with "Instagram tourism," or simply Chinese package tourism, both of which can result in an order of magnitude of more tourists literally overnight -- completely overwhelming the carrying capacity of fragile sites."

Shawn Heinrichs, a well-known conservationist and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker who has spent much of the past decade working in Raja Ampat, says, "With emerging 'eco-tourism' exploding in countries such as China, the pressure is way beyond any reasonable capacity. I really think we need to explore layers of access, like in Galapagos, where you have general access zones, followed by much more limited special access zones, and finally no or almost-no access zones. We are racing toward a scenario where we 'love' Raja to death, as well in as other areas. The special-access zones would come with permit and increased fee requirements. This could head off the need to shut down sites and raise critical revenue to support conservation and patrols. Unfortunately, the tragedy of the 'commons principle' comes into play, where everyone feels they should have virtually free access to all areas."

Erdmann adds, "I think we are definitely at the point now in Raja Ampat, where we need to closely examine the Galapagos model and adapt this to the local context. Conservation International has initiated productive discussions with the Raja Ampat Tourism Department and Raja Ampat Marine Protected Area management to significantly ramp up active tourism management in the region -- which, fortunately, the government readily agrees is now needed."

Referencing the liveaboard community operating in Raja Ampat, Erdmann states, "There is going to be a management response to the constantly-increasing number of boats in Raja Ampat each year. This is simply not sustainable and is not in line with the original vision agreed to in 2009 by the Raja Ampat government and local communities to limit annual licenses to 40 ships. Similarly, the overall concept of staying within the tourism-carrying capacity of the reefs in Raja Ampat also applies to resorts and homestays. There simply is an upper limit to the number of visitors that can be accommodated each year in Raja Ampat."

While specific details of the new tourism management policies are very much still under discussion and consideration, Erdmann says, "I fully expect that we are going to see some significant management interventions, ranging from temporary closures of certain sites and regions to restrictions on the number of boats allowed and amount of time allowed to be in a given region. [Conservation International] is also strongly recommending to the Raja Ampat government that it seriously tighten down on restricting the number of operating licenses available, while also aggressively moving forward with a Raja Ampat-wide mooring buoy system, with the plan to eliminate anchoring in Raja Ampat over the next two to three years."

Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock are award-winning underwater photographers and veteran dive group leaders who've led trips to remote and sensitive areas such as Sipadan, Komodo Island, the Solomon Islands, and Raja Ampat. Their article originally appeared as a blog on the Bird's Head Seascape website (, which they manage. See and read more about Jones and Shimlock's work at

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