“I have honestly never seen anything so stunningly surreal or achingly beautiful” was how one traveller described a night-time visit to the mangroves in La Parguera, Puerto Rico. She joined a small tour to witness the extraordinary phenomenon of bioluminescent creatures glowing like magic in the waters of a mangrove bay. And with a commendation like that you can be sure that her experience will act as a catalyst, drawing others. In the tight margins of tourism such unique experiences are worth their weight in gold.
From my perspective, I’m keen to draw attention to the source of the gold. Nature’s benefits to tourism are often overlooked, but if we can understand them better, the tourism industry might even start to champion their protection.
Mangrove forests aren’t the archetypal tourist destination. In fact, tourism development has overseen the demise of vast tracts of these eccentric ecosystems. In my research, however, I have again and again found reference to tourism in mangroves around the world and so we formulate a research challenge — to find out just how common it was. And in a new study just published, we’ve done just that.
Given the absence of formal data sources, we utilised a ground-breaking approach, utilising information that tourists had already shared with the world: in this case reviews posted on TripAdvisor. Other studies have used social media to look at tourism patterns and movements, but few have used TripAdvisor, and there are almost no studies at the global scale. The concept is simple — find all the reviews which mention the word “mangrove”. The challenges came from extracting and cleaning the information, only part of which can be automated.
The result was a list of almost 4000 mangrove “attractions”, in 93 countries. This is not a complete list, but it’s more than anyone expected. You can see the map in Image 3 below.
A clever twist on this work is the opportunity to go deep: to use their own words to “see” what the tourists saw. Once again, the concept is simple, but getting the searches correct is still a challenge. This part of the work was more of a trial, but we were able to categorise activities, facilities and wildlife. We found, for example that over 80% of attractions mentioned boating, including some 40% where kayaks or paddleboards were mentioned. Likewise, over a quarter of attractions mention birdlife, while monkeys, manatees and crocodiles or alligators are also regularly mentioned.
For us this work represents the beginning — we want to understand the role of other direct nature experiences, but also the importance of nature in the background, creating the views, the clean waters, the sand for the beaches, the seafood on the plates. We also need to build more accurate assessments of value.
For mangrove attractions, we still only have anecdotal numbers from a few sites. But even these should be enough to stop us in our tracks. In Puerto Rico, where our first reviewer above had her remarkable tour, there are well over 10,000 reviews for mangrove sites on TripAdvisor. The bigger mangrove attractions around the world are generating tens to hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, spending millions of dollars.
Mangroves are indeed very special. In Bonaire, you might kayak with flamingos. In Trinidad, you can witness the darkening skies spark with scarlet flashes as thousands of ibis return home at sunset. Take a boat in Borneo and you may get up close to proboscis monkeys — placid climbers with pot bellies and pendulous noses. In the Philippines, the night air is filled by clouds of fireflies. Beyond these dramatics, it is the other-worldly tranquillity of the mangroves that draws me in. Mangrove forests form a nearly impenetrable mess of arching and spiking roots and branches, a sort of endless Escher print. These are the jungles of dreams where fish swim among trees, where giant crabs wave their claws, where pelicans perch precariously on the branches. The outside world is silenced by walls of a million leaves and the air is still but cool in the shadows. Be it in boats or along board-walks, even just a few minutes from their departure point, visitors find themselves light years away in a sort of real-life wildlife documentary.
A short trip to a mangrove forest can provide the unique experience that lifts a holiday out of the normal, that makes a destination unforgettable. The full value of that memory — of the smiles and of the stories generated from a shared adventure — are hard to calculate. The trip might not have cost very much, it might have just been a couple of hours during a two-week vacation. But it makes a difference when those smiles are big enough to last a lifetime.
This post was written by Mark Spalding, Senior Marine Specialist, The Nature Conservancy.