In Mexico, diving tourism is worth as much as fishing
Mexico’s warm waters and diverse marine ecosystems make it a popular destination for divers the world over. But most of the diving tourism business being family owned shops scattered across the country, no one knew how much money diving tourism generated each year. Today, a new study reveals that the Mexican dive tourism industry is much, much larger than previously thought, generating as much income as the country’s industrial and artisanal fishing industries combined.
“The total value is surprising, although it is often not a surprise to the people who live in these places,” says Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor, a resource economist at the University of British Columbia who did not participated in the research. “But when you see all the numbers added up, you go, Wow, that’s huge.”
Based on surveys, researchers estimated that the dive tourism industry generates between US $ 455 million and US $ 725 million per year, which is comparable to the income generated by the fishing industries in Mexico.
This finding lays the groundwork for better coordination and advocacy by members of the dive tourism industry, and supports greater marine conservation in Mexico, says Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, marine biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego which worked on the study. As Mexico’s dive tourism industry recovers from a year of shutdown during the pandemic, the study is also sparking discussions on how to better manage tourism in coastal communities.
Aburto-Oropeza has visited dive sites across Mexico and Latin America, diving both for research and for his underwater photography hobby. “One day I woke up and said, ‘If dive sites make money just by bringing in divers, why aren’t they protected?
The economics of diving in Mexico were so poorly studied that prior to the report there was no comprehensive list of all dive sites or tour operators in the country. This contrasts sharply with the well-organized fishing industry, in which the National Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture of Mexico regularly studies and publishes reports on the state of the fisheries and the industry’s annual catch and income. , notes Aburto-Oropeza.
“When you don’t see the size of your business, the likelihood that you are empowered or inspired to protect these areas is minimal,” he says.
The researchers began by creating Mexico’s first database of dive sites and tour operators, compiling 264 tour operators and 860 dive sites across the country in 2019. They divided the list into four regions: the Baja Pacific and the Gulf of California, the South Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. They then began to contact the operators one by one, often carrying out door-to-door surveys.
The researchers also took a closer look at the business structures of dive tour operators and studied their impact on their communities. About 91% of the dive operators were small family businesses, serving an average of 74 tourists per week. The remaining nine percent were large companies serving an average of 1,600 tourists per week, mostly snorkelers.
Aburto-Oropeza and his colleagues have found that the type of mass ocean tourism offered by large corporations poses greater risk to reefs and marine ecosystems while providing fewer benefits to local communities. Large companies were more likely to be owned by foreigners than by Mexican nationals. And because they rely on selling high volumes of cheap snorkeling tours, rather than smaller, more expensive dive tours, 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 towards organizing their industry. And while the pandemic has resulted in significant revenue losses, it has also sparked discussion about how dive tourism can reopen in a more sustainable way, for example by managing tourism numbers to avoid overcrowding.
“The pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of a more political voice for this sector,” said Aburto-Oropeza. “Some of the lessons, especially for small towns, are how to start thinking about better ways to manage tourism and growth strategies in the years to come.”