Can Resort Hotels Help Coral Reef Ecosystems and Make Money?

Resort diving is big business, and coral reefs a big part of it. A 2013 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report pegs the economic tourism value of all coral reefs in the United States, territories and Caribbean at $900 million dollars annually, but resorts reefs and the tourism they support are vanishing.


Reef Worlds, based in Los Angeles, is unique tourism development firm tasked with creating new resort tourism opportunities, rehabilitating resort reefs with science and art, and saving the planet. Company founder Patric Douglas says the idea grew organically out of his previous work with Shark Diver, the white shark cage diving company he founded not only to popularize shark diving in 2000, but also to educate divers on the plight of sharks in oceans worldwide. Since 2000 shark tourism around the world has grown into a $700 million-dollar global tourism juggernaut. He hopes to do the same thing for decimated resort coral reefs.


Due to a variety of factors resort reefs are in severe decline around the world. Gone are the days when a visitor to a Caribbean resort could walk out on a near-shore snorkeling tour and see healthy coral reefs teeming with life. Today, that excursion usually involves a lengthy boat ride to declining off shore reef system. But hotels at tropical resorts are still trying to one-up each other in the battle royale for tourism dollars: the swimming-pool wars of the 1980s and 1990s gave way to full-blown water parks like Bahama’s Atlantis, yet the resorts themselves seemed to have completely ignore their offshore assets, Douglas observed.


“My team and I were lamenting that at every major hotel resort we went to in the Caribbean and Mexico, the near-shore reef system was just gone, like a nuke went off,” Douglas says. “So the question became, what can we do to rehabilitate that, and what’s the tourism angle? All of these resorts are 200 feet from the ocean, but have nothing to do with the ocean.”


Douglas, a self-described “environmentalist masquerading as a developer,” says coastal resort hotels are uniquely positioned to grow their business by developing recreational opportunities in the water, but also to defend the natural resources there.


Building Resort Art Reefs


Reef Worlds’ take on artificial reefs adds a new tourism paradigm and revenue opportunities: their unique underwater art and tourism installations are designed first for customers with credit cards, and then for ones with real fins. Primarily intended to provide tourists with a new adventure-based experience, and in places where they are already present in great numbers, Douglas hopes the increased traffic will create a positive feedback loop. By making artificial reef ecosystems more accessible to more people, a large part of the goal is to drive a greater demand for conservation of the natural resources.


To build these underwater artificial art reefs, Reef Worlds translates computer-based designs into full-scale, hand-finished foam blocks, which are then used to cast the molds for the final underwater art structures. Once on site, the molds are filled with a mixture of concrete and basalt rock substrate, cured and submerged.


The size of conservation scope Douglas envisions is grand: at each of the first three planned Reef Worlds location, the artificial reef territory will cover a five-acre plot with a mixture of open ocean floor and full-sized structures for exploration. Underwater buildings for Pearl of Dubai will be constructed in a way to maximize fish and coral habitat; for the “Gods of the Maya” project in Mexico, full-scale replicas of Mayan stelae and other sculpture will not only showcase the country’s cultural heritage, but also provide plenty of nooks and crannies for critters.


In the immortal words of Kevin Costner, build it and they will come. Though artificial reefs have been used for centuries as defensive structures, breakwaters and to attract fish, the typical reason modern reefs are built is to increase available habitat for coral and fish. Divers come as a consequence, but the reefs weren’t built for them. Reef Worlds blends tourism with best environmental practices to create new habitat and revenue for resort.


Artist Jason deCaires Taylor creates underwater installations with sculptures made from highly detailed casts of real people. He recently completed a project in Lanzarote, Spain, and his installation in Cancun, Mexico attracts thousands of divers every year. As part of its statewide initiative to increase reef real estate off its shores, Florida sank an entire aircraft carrier, the USS Oriskany. And the half-acre Neptune Memorial Reef site in the waters off Miami, inspired by the lost city of Atlantis, is designed to eventually accommodate the cremated remains of people interested in a different kind of burial at sea.


In Dubai, Douglas says the Reef Worlds client for the Pearl of Dubai Project initially wasn’t as concerned with the ecosystem restoration component as they were about simply having something to boost diving tourism in the country. But after being convinced that supporting the return of the brown spotted reef cod, a delicacy known locally as hamour, would also encourage divers to come swim with the popular fish, they asked Douglas to “Swiss cheese” the designs of the underwater city to give baby cod a place to hide and thrive. Reef Worlds is planning the release of two million baby hamour into the Dubai reef as part of the project.


Yet while creating new resort revenue is the reason for the projects, it relies upon public passion to create the demand to protect them in the long term, Douglas says.


“Once people have a more authentic experience, and engage with a reef on a fundamental level, it changes their whole focus and attitude,” Douglas says. “It’s cool to say that you went underwater and saw fish, but it’s important to learn why it’s there, and that it’s a replacement for what was once there. You’re now in participation to make it right, and make it better—even though it doesn’t make up for what was once there.”


Keith Mille is a fisheries biologist who has worked in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s artificial reef section for 14 years, overseeing the planning and construction of reef projects in the state. As public properties, Florida’s reefs are open for recreational fishing and diving, but are also used in research. Mille explains that man-made reefs often work best as a diversion to take pressure off of natural reefs.


“That is a trend, statue-type deployments that are more focused on attracting people than fish,” he says. “By directing divers and tourism use to an artificial reef site, you could potentially reduce traffic to more sensitive areas for an overall net benefit.”


“To save resort reefs, you have to put money into it, and the best way to do that is to create new ways of charging people to go see it. The net result is better resort reef habitat and a better client experience” says Douglas.


The future for conservation, education, and tourism is in the fusion of art and science underwater.