The Contribution of Whale Watching to Conservation in Marine-Protected Areas : The Example of Bahía De San Antonio, Patagonia
Management of Tourism Ecosystem Services in a Post Pandemic Context
The United Nations predicts that ecotourism will grow rapidly within the COVID-19 post-pandemic context, increasing the pressure on protected environments if they are not properly planned and managed. For this reason, development strategies to reduce the impact of tourism on ecosystems and strengthen biodiversity management and conservation are acutely necessary. Whale-Watching (WW) tourism can help to raise the awareness among visitors of the inestimable value of marine-ecosystem conservation. The Bahía de San Antonio Marine Protected Area (BSAMPA) is composed of a coastal wetland and part of the marine ecosystem in the northwest San Matías gulf in northern Patagonia. The reserve was created in 1993 to protect critical habitats of marine and migratory bird species, invertebrates, fish, and marine mammals. Since 2012, WW activities involving the southern right whale (SRW) Eubalaena australis have been conducted in a regulated manner and in a precautionary approach. From a tourism and recreational perspective, however, whether the activity contributes to the conservation objectives of this Marine Protected Area (MPA) is still unknown. The question has been raised as to whether WW generates truly meaningful experiences in nature conservation and whether visitors duly perceive the relationship between tourism-recreation and the conservation of the whales and their habitat. The work reported here deals with the relationship between visitors, the SRW, and the MPA. This knowledge represents an essential component in the management of this MPA and provides a background for sightings of marine fauna in protected natural spaces. To that end, information on WW activity collected during 2018–2019—entailing individual self-administered semi-structured questionnaires and on-board participant observation—in this area was used. From a sample of 407 individuals surveyed, 68.6% declared no knowledge of the regulation established for carrying out sightings. In addition, 78.4% of the visitors considered precautions necessary for carrying out tourist activities in nature, though almost half of the latter did not specify what type of precautions should be taken. As to personal experiences, 43.2% of the participants were unable to express anything about what they had learned during the excursion, while a little over 50% of the visitors said that the guides had not informed them that they were in an MPA. As such, WW in the BSAMPA has not yet taken advantage of the conservation position as a platform for promoting or strengthening conservation and ecologic precautions within the area or for valuing the associated ecosystem services. This study has thus garnered critical information that could be used to improve the management of the MPA’s conservation through WW activities as a source of critical information. Within this context, in the pursuit of a paradigm shift in WW tourism, the choice and/or activities of boat skippers or tourist guides could play key role in providing information to visitors on the fundamental ecologic aspects of the whales and the MPA. In addition, new data-collecting tools should be generated that contemplate the MPA’s conservation objectives; the WW’s regulations, environmental traits, and biodiversity; and the visitors’ conservation experience, among other issues.