Tourism, Not Tuna

There is a new wave of conservation in the Pacific. Fed up with overfishing and other non-sustainable practices like shark finning, small island nations are returning to more traditional ways. They are beginning to scale back industrial fishing in their waters, to protect their fish stocks from illegal fishing, and to create sustainable tourism destinations that will provide jobs that are lasting.

Jellyfish in Palau - Photo by Dave McAloney
Jellyfish in Palau. (Photo by Dave McAloney)

Take Palau, for example. It is a small nation, nestled in the middle of the Pacific, with pristine ocean waters and bountiful wildlife. The President of Palau, Tommy Renengesau, has announced that he intends to create a marine sanctuary where fishing is banned in 80 percent of his nation’s territorial waters. In the remaining 20%, only local fishing will be allowed.

Palau Proposed National Marine Sanctuary Map - Courtesy of the Palau Government
Palau Proposed National Marine Sanctuary Map. (Photo courtesy of the Government of Palau)

President Renengesau wants to do this in order to live up to their tradition of “bul,” which roughly means to place a moratorium on fishing in order to replenish those stocks. At the State Department’s Our Ocean Conference in June and again this week at the United Nation’s Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), he announced his firm intention to create the marine sanctuary. He vowed to take on the challenges of both replacing the income his government receives from tuna fishing, and monitoring and enforcing a marine park larger than the state of California.

Manta Ray in Palau - Photo by Dave McAloney
A manta ray observed in Palau. (Photo by Dave McAloney)

Why would President Renengesau be so determined to create the sanctuary? Because he wisely sees that his country’s future lies in tourism, not tuna. Tourism is a growing industry that currently provides more than 200 million jobs globally. The market is expanding as the burgeoning middle class in China, India and Brazil want to get away and see the world. And increasingly they have the income to afford it.

Fan Corals in Palau - Photo by Dave McAloney
Red coral in Palau. (Photo by Dave McAloney)

If countries like Palau take bold action to create sanctuaries and parks in the oceans, tourists will come. And the reverse is equally true—without conservation measures to protect pristine areas, it is nearly impossible to attract tourists and break out of the downward economic spiral of natural resource extraction.

Sunset in Palau - Photo by Dave McAloney
Sunset in Palau. (Photo by Dave McAloney)

Which is why National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project, led by Explorer Enric Sala, will begin an expedition to Palau next week. The goal is to dive in—literally—to the underwater Eden in Palau so that both the people of Palau, and the tourists of the world, can see for themselves its underwater riches. The hope is that if we can raise awareness about Palau’s beautiful ocean waters, the tourists will come. And then the President of Palau will achieve his vision in which sustainable tourism and not unsustainable tuna fishing supports his people. “Bul-ly” for him!

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Monica Medina is the Senior Director for International Ocean Policy at the National Geographic Society. She is determined to help save endangered wildlife and the last wild places in the ocean.