How the Blue Prosperity Plan works to protect and enhance the island’s biggest tourism asset: the ocean

As you walk into the boardroom of the Bermuda Hotel Association (BHA), it’s hard to miss the vintage Bermuda tourism posters that adorn the walls. Lush green golf courses next to pink sand beaches, happy couples riding by pastel cottages on bicycles with white wall tires, and—of course—the SS Queen of Bermuda in port on Front Street.

Today, some of the words used to describe tourism in the Bermuda Tourism Authority’s National Tourism Plan (NTP) include adventure, destination weddings, experiences, shopping, and yachts. Included in the NTP are also words that link the tourism of today with the tourism of yesteryear: beaches, ocean and coral reefs. These are Bermuda’s biggest tourism assets—our marine waters and the resources within them, including fish and cultural heritage resources, such as shipwrecks.

It is these “blue assets” that the Bermuda Ocean Prosperity Programme (BOPP) is working alongside community partners, such as the BHA and BTA, to protect and sustainably manage so that the tourists of tomorrow can continue to enjoy the island’s natural treasures, both above and below the water.

Bermuda’s Blue Assets
In the 2018 study, “Estimating Reef-Adjacent Tourism Value in the Caribbean,” Bermuda ranks among the top five countries most dependent upon “reef-adjacent” tourism; that is, activities that depend on coral reefs without actually taking place in the water. Such activities include dining on lobster or fish that were caught on the reef; relaxing on beaches whose sand was generated by reef organisms; or enjoying the sheltered waters of coves protected by reef structures. The same study found that Bermuda’s reefs generate a third or more of all tourism expenditures through both on-reef and reef-adjacent tourism.

At the same time, in 2019 the tourism sector accounted for approximately 5.5 percent of the island’s total GDP and employed 4,832 people or about 8 percent of the island’s population. If it was an industrial sector, it would rank fifth behind construction and quarrying, financial and insurance activities, real estate activities, and international business. However, many of these 4,832 jobs are on-reef or reef-adjacent and depend, in some part, on a healthy, vibrant reef ecosystem. They include the hoteliers represented by the BHA, concession stands that rent umbrellas and beach chairs, restaurants that serve local seafood, minibuses that drive tourists to beaches and watersport facilities, and tourism operators that bring visitors out to dive and snorkel on the reefs. It is easy to see how Bermuda’s reefs are one of the island’s biggest blue assets.

“For centuries, Bermuda has relied on the ocean for its existence, first through the abundance of fish for sustenance, then via the sailing ships that made Bermuda famous,” says Mark Diel, owner of Dive Bermuda. “Now we rely on the ocean in large part to support our tourism industry through activities such as deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, jet skiing, and sailing, to name a few. In the last few years, the ocean was even voted the number one tourist attraction by The Bermudian magazine’s Best in Bermuda awards.”

“If your business doesn’t rely on the ocean, it’s easy to underestimate just how important a healthy marine environment is to your bottom line,” says Captain Mark Wheddon, owner of Island Time Bermuda Sailboat Charters. “But when you have tourists that come from overseas, they get in the water with the expectation to see a beautiful, colourful reef teeming with vibrant fish and sea life. Unfortunately, what we’ve noticed over the past decade or more is that the vibrant fish and sea life are slowly diminishing, and our guests are increasingly asking us ‘Where are all the pretty fish?’”

A 2002 study in Turks and Caicos focused on the impact of Nassau grouper presence on dive site selection. It found that recreational divers preferred dive trips with more numerous and larger grouper. Moreover, divers of all experience levels were willing to pay at least $10 more per trip in which they could view higher numbers of Nassau grouper. The study’s authors note that “based on conversations with dive operators…divers may be [equating] grouper size [with] overall dive quality, as rarer, large Nassau grouper are indicative of unfished, and therefore superior, dive sites.” The main takeaway from the study is that most divers hold a strong preference for seeing more, larger fish in their natural habitats and that this preference is relatively inelastic—meaning that dive operators can charge higher prices for it with little impact on sales.

While Bermuda’s Nassau grouper population was overfished and shows little chance of recovery due to their specific life history characteristics, there are other reef fish that would be similarly valued by dive tourists. Sustainably managing fish populations requires a well-enforced and well-monitored plan that, as Diel puts it, “strikes a balance between the fishing industry and the rest of the watersport activities on the island.”

The Blue Prosperity Plan and Sustainable Marine Tourism
BOPP’s Blue Prosperity Plan has two parts: a Marine Spatial Plan (MSP) to sustainably manage the island’s marine resources in a way that reduces user conflict and a Blue Economy Strategy to help local ocean-related businesses develop the resources, training and infrastructure required to grow Bermuda’s blue economy.

One of the MSP’s fifteen goals, which were decided on through a community engagement process, is to “support environmentally sustainable marine and maritime tourism that promotes social justice, equity, inclusion, innovation and economic opportunities for Bermuda’s people.” The MSP hopes to achieve this goal by streamlining the permitting process that tourism businesses need to operate, integrating sustainable blue tourism policies into the National Tourism Plan, and increasing awareness of environmentally friendly tourism practices.

The Blue Economy Strategy, meanwhile, has four goals, one of which is to support sustainable marine tourism by developing sustainable or regenerative marine tourism activities that maximise local economic benefits and minimise negative environmental impacts. The Blue Economy Strategy hopes to achieve this goal by protecting marine tourism activities through the MSP and future policies, promoting Bermuda as a sustainable marine tourism destination and improving the benefits of marine tourism to the local economy.

One of the keys to the Blue Prosperity Plan is that one document cannot work without the other. The MSP protects and enhances the marine resources that support blue economy activities, while the Blue Economy Strategy includes a mechanism to fund ocean management and works to support the growth of businesses within Bermuda’s ocean-related industries, including sustainable or regenerative marine tourism operations.

“By prioritising conservation efforts, such as protecting marine environments like coral reefs and sea grasses, Bermuda can ensure the long-term health of its marine ecosystems,” says Marlee Cram, manager at Dive Bermuda. “This commitment to ecological preservation not only safeguards the breathtaking beauty of its underwater world, but also attracts responsible travelers seeking unforgettable, sustainable dive adventures, thereby fostering a thriving eco-tourism industry for generations to come.”

For more information on the Bermuda Ocean Prosperity Programme or to stay up-to-date with the development of the Blue Prosperity Plan, visit www.bermudaoceanprosperity.org.