By Julia Vera
Partner & Managing Director

How Ecotourism Links Ocean & Human Health

SOPHIE's Citizen Science Program has proved that working with ecotourism operators as citizen sensors to build knowledge on Ocean & Human Health has great potential that should be further explored and realized.

In spite of the current COVID-19 crises, it is safe to proclaim that tourism is -and will continue to be- a driver of socio-economic progress. Tourism generates wealth and jobs, as well as bringing together people from different backgrounds, cultures and traditions, thereby promoting peace. We at Travelecoology believe that certain type of tourism -ecotourism, namely- can further contribute to reduce the environmental footprint of travel, increase its economic impact and legacy in host communities and raise awareness on societal issues, bringing education through natural & cultural interpretation into the sum of benefits it conveys. But what if ecotourism could also bring an additional dividend to public health?

Recent research suggests that the practice of water sports is saving at least €200 million to the UK health care system annually. The so-called “blue health effect” seems to be behind this extraordinary figure, pointing at the positive influence that exposure to “blue spaces” -whether coastal & marine or inland water environments- seems to have on human health. Unfortunately, in spite of being an area of research of growing interest, given the huge cost of research, the blue health effect remains poorly understood. Which leaves us again wondering whether ecotourism that revolves around blue spaces can indeed deliver that added health dividend. So what if we could use the very virtues of ecotourism (i.e. its operators natural disposition and willingness to team up with society to tackle environmental and social issues through travel) to lower the cost of research and deliver data to scientists?

We weren’t sure we could. But we decided to try. 

In 2019, Travelecoology, together with our scientific partner Submon, launched a pilot Citizen Science Program in the framework of the “Seas Ocean & Public Health in Europe (SOPHIE)” Project. The Program sought to activate ecotourism operators and their clients as “citizen sensors” that contribute to build knowledge on Ocean & Human Health (OHH) interactions. Looking not only at the positive ones (benefits, such as the “blue health effect”), but also at the negative ones (such as those stemming from pollution or harmful alga blooms, for example), which unfortunately do exist. The pilot Program was launched as a scoping effort aimed at identifying the strengthsweaknessesrisksopportunities and critical success factors for launching such a network at a broader European level.

Using the WILDSEA Europe network as a platform to engage tourism operators from both Atlantic and Mediterranean destinations across Europe, information and knowledge exchange sessions and meetings were organized and held in GreeceIrelandPortugalSpain and the UK. Through this effort, nearly 300 tourism operators were reached.

Image: SOPHIE Knowledge & Information Session in Thessaloniki (Greece)

Tourism operators that joined SOPHIE’s Citizen Science Program were provided with tools & resources to help them (1) trigger engaging conversations with their customers on the relationship with the Ocean and human health, and to (2) gather data around two different initiatives:

  • The “Mapping Ostreopsis” citizen science initiative, inviting tourism operators to report possible outbreaks of Ostreopsis spp. harmful alga blooms in coastal areas, as an “early alarm” system.
  • The “Blue Spaces & Wellbeing” citizen science initiative, inviting tourism operators to encourage their customers to share data by filling up a survey seeking to respond to these questions: Does engagement in (guided vs. unguided) marine ecotourism activities increase awareness on Ocean & Human Health interactions? Can participation in marine ecotourism activities trigger sustainable behaviour change on environmental issues related to Ocean & Human Health?

From all tourism operators engaged, 109 signed-up to actively take part in the Program. That means that roughly 1 out of every 3 tourism operators in Europe is willing to engage and contribute to citizen science initiatives. Considering there are thousands of tourism companies offering services across European destinations, we confirm that there is hope and potential in the possibility of rolling out a sentinel network to support OHH research through tourism stakeholders.

Image: Poster delivered to tourism operators engaged in SOPHIE's Citizen Science Program

For the “Blue Spaces & Wellbeing” citizen science initiative, slightly over 200 survey responses were received from people living in 13 different countries that had carried out coastal & marine activities in 9 European countries. However, only 100 of those responses were complete and could be used for analysis. The data collection process had to be sadly halted in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 crises, which meant that those 100 surveys were not quite enough for a solid statistical analysis. Nonetheless -if only in terms of the geographical scope of the data gathered- these results give us a good idea of the potential of citizen science. In addition, when analyzed by Dr. Deborah Cracknell of the University of Exeter, the valid surveys threw some interesting preliminary results. Here are some:

  • Undertaking a coastal & marine activity was generally considered a very positive experience for those who engaged in one: people agreed that the activity made them feel happy and was worthwhile, and many expressed a sense of achievement.
  • People who carried the activity with a Tour Guide learned more about marine life and felt more connected to other people than those who did it on their own or independently with family/friends. However, surprisingly, customers did not feel they had learnt much about how they could contribute to protect the marine environment.
  • Curiously, cloudy weather was positively correlated with feeling close to nature. A plausible explanation could be that being outdoors when the weather is not great brings a sense of living a more “challenging” experience that makes people feel that they are “out in the elements”, and thus part of nature.
  • Certain external events, such as motorboats, jet skis, noisy mobile phones and crowds negatively impacted people’s enjoyment.

Image: SOPHIE meeting with Odyssey Outdoor Activities diving centre in Ithaca (Greece)

Regarding the “Mapping Ostreopsis” initiative, no operators reported any strange algal growths along European coasts or any suspicious symptoms amongst their staff or clients. We cannot be sure whether this was due to lack of interest in this initiative, or because no special events were worthy of their particular attention. In areas already known for Ostreopsis growth, 2019 was a year of low growth, with fewer reports than other years, which might explain the lack of sighting reports.

At first sight, and with these results in hand, we could easily be tempted to forego citizen science as a meaningful tool to support OHH research through ecotourism. But when compared with other “classic” research projects, our results do support arguments in favor of rolling out citizen science initiatives through ecotourism operators, namely:

  • The “Ocean literacy” benefit added to the data gathering process (capitalizing on the educational component of ecotourism, which has been proved through the “Wellbeing & Blue Spaces” initiative).
  • The wider geographical scope reached, given the availability of limited resources (data was gathered from 9 different countries, but only 5 countries were visited to engage and train tourism operators).
  • The possibility to achieve economies of scale (had our citizen science program been able to be rolled over a longer span of time, we would have been able to continue gathering data at a much lower marginal cost per survey).

We will have to wait for more evidence before we can openly support the claim that coastal & marine ecotourism contributes to enhance public health. But SOPHIE’s Citizen Science Program has proved that working with ecotourism operators as citizen sensors to build knowledge on Ocean & Human Health has great potential that should be further explored and realized.


SOPHIE’s Citizen Science Program was conducted in the framework of project SOPHIE (Seas, Oceans and Public Health in Europe), funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, grant agreement No 774567. 

Useful links:

SOPHIE Citizen Science Program: https://sophie2020.eu/activities/citizen-science/

SOPHIE website: sophie2020.eu

SOPHIE resources: sophie2020.eu/resources

SOPHIE projects and publications: sophie2020.eu/activities

SOPHIE people: sophie2020.eu/people