New Study Reveals Health of Coral Reefs Critical to Caribbean's Future

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In the Caribbean, an area of the world that’s more dependent on tourism than any other region across the globe, coral reef-adjacent tourism generates a staggering $7.9 billion annually.

That translates into about 23 percent of all tourism spending in the region and is equivalent to more than 10 percent of the Caribbean’s gross domestic product, according to a new report from JetBlue created in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, an organization focused on conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends.

Concerningly, however, coral reef health is diminishing from impacts such as pollution and climate change.

“Scientific evidence shows that living corals in the Caribbean have declined over 60 percent in just the last three decades alone,” stated Dr. Luis Solórzano, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean, as part of the new report, entitled “Estimating Reef-Adjacent Tourism Value in the Caribbean.”

Scuba Diving at Coral Reef. (Photo via JovanaMilanko / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Created with the support of Microsoft and the World Travel & Tourism Council, the newly issued study focuses on the connection between natural resources and tourism. The innovative study used machine learning and artificial intelligence to quantify the significant value that reefs contribute to the Caribbean economy through reef-adjacent activities such as sailing, diving and snorkeling.

“This study proves the relationship between healthy coral reefs and tourism, and the overall financial stability of the Caribbean. It’s time for conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy and the tourism industry to work together on solutions to conserve the region’s resources,” said Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability and environmental, social governance, JetBlue.

This is the second such study funded by JetBlue to measure the correlation between Caribbean ecosystems and travel industry revenue. The first report EcoEarnings: A Shore Thing, was issued in 2015.

The airline has a vested interest in ensuring the long-term health of the region and its tourism economy. The Caribbean and Latin America account for one-third of JetBlue’s flying operations.

The Nature Conservancy has begun deploying innovative solutions to protect and restore coral reefs throughout the region, but its executive director stressed that efforts must move faster if they are to outpace the current rate of degradation and increasing threats to coral reefs.

“Millions of people in the Caribbean depend on coral reefs as a source of livelihood, and the region is known as paradise to so many travelers from around the globe,” said Solórzano. “It is our responsibility to protect the natural wonders, like coral reefs, that sustain both the Caribbean economy and tourism alike.”

Solórzano is not alone in his concerns.

“A more sustainable future depends upon our ability to better model, monitor and manage natural resources like coral reefs, and that will require human ingenuity paired with AI,” said Dr. Lucas Joppa, chief environmental officer at Microsoft.

The study’s additional key findings include:

The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, where JetBlue is the largest airline to both islands, benefit from tourist spending of more than $1 billion per year. This tourism revenue is directly linked to reefs.

The Bahamas , Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico receive more than one million visitors per year whose visits are directly linked to coral reefs.

The top 10 percent highest-value reef areas each generate more than $5.7 million and 7,000 visitors per square kilometer per year. These reefs are scattered in almost every country and territory in the region and have a large proportion of high-value reefs, each with an average spend value equal to over $3 million per square kilometer per year.

The countries most dependent on reef-adjacent tourism include many small island nations and JetBlue destinations, like Antigua and Barbuda, Bermuda and St. Maarten, where there may be relatively few alternative sources of income outside of reef-associated tourism.

Only 35 percent of Caribbean reefs are positioned where they do not draw revenue for the region’s tourism sector, indicating that there are little to no options to expand reef-associated activities to new areas. Most of the reefs not used for tourism are in remote locations.

The new report also outlines a variety of potential threats to tourism in the Caribbean including climate change. As for coral reefs, they face additional threats as well including overfishing, pollution, and coastal development.

With tourism being an essential pillar of all Caribbean economies, depletion of the region’s natural resources could lead to economic and social risks, states the report.

With that in mind, the report suggests tourism-associated businesses, including cruise lines, airlines, and hotels seize the opportunity to work together and continue to invest in protecting the region’s environmental health.

In response to the study, JetBlue is donating 50 flights to The Nature Conservancy for scientists to travel to the region to further research and help conserve coral reefs.

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