Managing the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve: An Analysis of the Whale Shark Dive Tourism Industry in Placencia, Belize

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The Gladden Spit Marine Reserve is co-managed by Friends of Nature and the Government of Belize. A section of the reserve, known as the Whale Shark Zone, is managed for whale shark dive tourism as part of an initiative to shift the local economy away from the fishing industry that threatens the marine resources of Gladden Spit to a more sustainable and lucrative tourism industry.

A fee was assessed to visitors to the Whale Shark Zone in 2004 in order to generate revenue for managing the protected area. Concurrently, a survey was developed targeting visitors who had spent time diving and/or snorkeling in the Whale Shark Zone. The intent of the survey was to assess visitor willingness to pay, as well as to gather information on visitor demographics and their perceptions of their tourism experiences. In addition, an evaluation of management effectiveness at the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve was conducted, as well as an evaluation of the sustainability of the whale shark tourism industry under the management of Friends of Nature. The purpose of this project was to generate recommendations for the improvement of management of the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve.

Results indicate that many visitors would be willing to pay more than the fee of $15 per day that was charged in 2004 to visit the Whale Shark Zone. Visitor perceptions of their experiences at Gladden Spit indicate overcrowding of tourists in the reserve, fewer sightings of whale sharks, and a desire for improved educational information about the reserve prior to tours. Recommendations for the improvement of the management of the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve are based on the results of the visitor survey and of the evaluation of the sustainability of the whale shark tourism industry.

Despite the challenges that Friends of Nature faces in managing the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, the organization has established itself as a strong force in the effort to promote environmental and economic sustainability. One of the most significant resources at the disposal of Friends of Nature is the support of local communities. Belize has a strong commitment to environmental conservation, and people recognize the importance of maintaining the integrity of the country’s natural resources to their own socioeconomic wellbeing. The challenge is to direct policy and management in such a way that the use of natural resources for the purpose of economic development, including tourism, is a sustainable process.

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