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History and context
The first commercial whale watching trips in Scotland were offered from the Isle of Mull in 19891, and the industry took off from that point, growing at an average rate of 8.5% per year, and doubling during the period between 1998 and 20082. As of 2008 the industry in Scotland was represented by 51 tour operators, of which 46 offered boat-based tours, and 5 focused on shore-based whale watching. Whale watching in Scotland attracted approximately 224,000 whale watchers per year, with an estimated direct revenue from whale watching activities of almost 5 million USD, and indirect revenue (for hotels and restaurants and other tourism related services) of roughly 13 million USD2. 55-60% of this tourism takes place form the picturesque west coast of Scotland and the constellation of islands known as the Hebrides, while a slightly smaller percentage is based in the Moray Firth and Inverness on the northeast coast. While the majority of tours are advertised as general marine wildlife tours, twelve operators offered exclusively whale and dolphin targeted tours, which focus on bottlenose dolphins, minke whales and harbor porpoises2. In 2015 a study focusing on West Scotland alone estimated that 51,200 people went whale-watching on boats in the west of Scotland generating roughly 6 million GBP of combined direct and indirect revenue3. This study found that while the total number of whale-watching passengers in West Scotland declined by 17.3 % between 2000 and 2015.3
Against this ‘big picture’ of whale watching in Scotland, several studies have been conducted to better understand the socio-economic impacts of whale watching in Scotland and the nature of the tourists taking part in this activity4. A 2003 study determined that 23 % of the whale watchers interviewed in rural west Scotland had come to the area specifically for whale watching5. Studies also showed that whale watchers were likely to stay in the area longer and contribute more to the economy than they would have if whale watching had not been on offer5,6. Scottish whale watching tourists were generally middle class, middle-aged, well educated,5 and more environmentally aware and active than the general public in Britain7. Many of them classified themselves as ‘dolphin enthusiasts’ and indicated a strong interest in either returning to the same area or visiting other dolphin watching areas in Britain if given the knowledge and opportunity6. Overall, awareness and perceptions of whale watching among the general public in Scotland (Glasgow and Edenborough) were fairly high and very positive, with 60% of those interviewed indicating that they would like to participate in a whale watching trip, even though only 7% had done so in the past8.
A fair amount of research has also been conducted on the tour operators offering whale watching and general marine wildlife tours in Scotland. Whale watching tour operators were mostly local to the coastal communities where their tours were offered. Many were ex-fishermen and most did not have any formal training in business management or wildlife guiding9. These operators generally provided employment for up to five full time equivalent positions each, and as such were actively contributing to local employment numbers9 as well as the local economy through direct and indirect/related revenue from whale watching. A more recent study of 22 whale watch tour operators in West Scotland revealed that over half of the operators (54 %) had been conducting whale-watching for greater than 10 years, suggesting it is providing a reliable and sustainable source of employment3. In addition to their contributions to the economy and employment, whale watch operators were documented to contribute to local communities in other less quantifiable, but very tangible ways: some collect contributions from tourists for local charities; others offer free tours to local school groups and small businesses at the end of the season; and some staff members from whale watch operators use their seafaring and first aid skills to contribute to community services such as the lifeboat crew and the fire brigade4.
In addition to the benefits that whale watching provides to local communities in Scotland, it has also contributed to scientific understanding of whale and dolphin distribution, habitat preference, and behavior through the use of whale watching vessels as platforms of opportunity for data collection. Tour operators who collected data themselves, or allowed graduate students to join their tours to collect data on whale or dolphin behavior, facilitated the publication of at least three papers in respected scientific journals that allow the international research community to better understand the distribution and behavior of minke whales off the west coast of Scotland10-12. What is learned from whale watch tours and researchers is often shared with the general public through interpretive guides on tours, information and displays at visitors’ centers and dedicated outreach and education programmes run by NGO’s, such as the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, and the Scottish Dolphin Centre.
These factors all indicate that whale watching has a very positive socioeconomic impact in Scotland, and that it has the potential to further expand and provide wider benefits to more tourists and coastal communities in the future.