October 18, 2023

Why is mass tourism so bad for our oceans?

Every year, millions of people flock to the coast to enjoy the sea and the recreational activities it offers. However, our love of the ocean has come with a dire cost, greatly impacting the delicate ecosystems beneath the waves. 

We tend to think that the biggest threats to our oceans come from overfishing, pollution and climate change; but we can also add mass tourism to the list. While tourism itself is a valuable contributor to the global economy, mass tourism describes the seasonal influx of massive numbers of tourists to popular vacation spots. 

Fishing nets surrounding a fishing boat
Discarded fishing nets are a huge problem for marine life

Warm summers in particular attract millions of people to the beach, but a lot of popular destinations struggle under the weight of cheap and accessible tourism. In some instances, local authorities have implemented entrance fees and limited the number of visitors allowed — but in many cases this isn’t the case.

How does mass tourism hurt ocean ecosystems?

Over the last 50 or so years, mass tourism has taken off in a way that’s worrying for local communities and conservationists. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimated there were 1.4 billion travelers in 2018, compared to just 25 million in 1950. Low-cost airlines, all-inclusive deals, and easy online booking have made this possible. 

Unregulated recreational activities (such as boat tours, sightseeing and sealife spotting), tourist carelessness, and economic opportunity have all contributed to the problem. Here are several more ways mass tourism is harming our oceans.

Coral Reef Destruction

Areas once full of colorful coral reefs are suffering from over-diving and snorkeling, which has resulted in huge amounts of damage to fragile coral reef ecosystems. Not just this, but chemicals in sunscreen have also been known to contribute to coral bleaching. Coral reefs are famously under threat. Coral is a living organism, so it suffers when swimmers break, damage or pollute their delicate structures. Even if unintentional, man made disturbances have resulted in the death of around 50% of the world’s coral reefs.

Coral reef and fish
Coral reefs are home to millions of species

The Great Barrier Reef

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the poster child for coral degradation. Almost half of this massive coral maze has disappeared in the last thirty years. The reef is one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, pulling in around $6 billion annually and supporting thousands of jobs. Unfortunately, this helped contribute to the Reef’s decline. Threats to the Reef have come from increased pollution and changing water temperature, which has bleached the coral and caused deadly starfish outbreaks. Coastal developments like hotels and restaurants are also a threat to this vast and delicate ecosystem.

Marine Pollution

Pollutants into the ocean come from a variety of sources, but all of it is hurting marine life. Tourist-related activities often lead to the incorrect disposal of plastic waste, litter, and sewage into the ocean. Careless tourist behavior contributes to the build up of plastic in the ocean around popular vacation spots. Furthermore, cruise ships often dump millions of dirty or polluted waste into the ocean which impacts marine life.

Plastic in the ocean
Billions of tons of plastic waste are dumped into our oceans annually

Zanzibar & Tanzania

Tourism generates a huge amount of plastic waste. Marine litter in the Mediterranean region was found to increase by up to 40% during the high tourist season. This is because much of the plastics used by the tourism industry are cheap and often cannot be recycled, such as plastic cutlery, water bottles, straws and smoking packaging. 

Marine plastic pollution is becoming an increasingly urgent issue in African coastal locations, which rely on tourism to drive local and national economies. A recent study found that in both Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar Island in the Zanzibar Archipelago, around two thirds of all marine plastic pollution was generated by the tourism industry. 

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We all love a delicious, fresh seafood dinner by the ocean, but this demand by tourists can lead to overfishing, which depletes fish populations and disrupts the balance of marine ecosystems. It also has an impact on local communities whose livelihoods depend on the sea. They simply can’t compete against the larger and more technologically advanced fishing methods employed by the fishing industry. All of this puts great pressure on fish populations.

Southern Bluefin Tuna

This species has been intensely overfished since the 1950s. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the southern bluefin tuna as critically endangered, because the estimated spawning stock biomass has declined around 85 percent between 1973 and 2009. Southern bluefin tuna has a prominent role in Japanese cuisine, and is a hugely popular type of sashimi due to its rich flavors. This fish is so popular and sought-after in Asia that a single massive tuna once sold for $1.8 million USD! However, these kinds of price tags encourage illegal SBT fishing and keep the species from recovering. 

Bluefin tuna
Bluefin tuna

Coastal Developments

The construction of resorts, hotels, and other tourist infrastructure along coastlines can damage critical habitats like mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and nesting sites for sea turtles. This is a big problem because as well as prohibiting wildlife from having access to the shore, it makes coastal regions vulnerable to flooding and other natural disasters. While erosion is a naturally-occurring process, regular construction accelerates it, disrupting natural processes like sand dune formation.

Mediterranean Monk Seal forced to raise their pups in caves

There are estimated to be only 700 Mediterranean monk seals left in the wild. It was recently discovered that this incredibly rare seal, a critically endangered species, has been forced to breed in caves along the Cypriot coast. In the past, the seal had used open beaches to raise their pups, but mass tourism is one of a few factors that have driven the species away from the beaches and into the caves for protection. However, not all of these caves are protected and monitored, and some have already been destroyed to make way for further developments.

Boat Traffic 

Whalewatching boat
Mass tourism interrupts the migratory patterns of dolphins and whales

Excess boat traffic from sightseeing tours, transport, and other recreational activities can lead to accidental oil spills, collisions with marine mammals, and disturb the sea floor. Unregulated recreational boating is also a big cause of introduction and spread of marine invasive species. Areas with a lot of boat traffic will also chase important keystone species further away from the shore, upsetting the ecosystem.

Anchoring impacts seagrass meadows

Repetitive anchor drops can scar the ocean floor as they move and uproot important seagrass. Seagrass creates a safe, leafy habitat for many species, protecting juveniles and smaller invertebrates from harm. They also combat climate change by absorbing and storing huge amounts of carbon in their foliage. When leisure boats drop anchor into this environment, it can rip up and damage this safe haven. 

Noise Pollution

Another major problem with unregulated boat traffic is the noise pollution it produces. Hundreds of boats heading out to tour the coastline and chase whales creates a huge amount of noise underwater. These noises are very disruptive to marine life, especially whales and dolphins that rely on sound for communication and navigation.

Dolphins have to yell underwater

Many coastal tourist hotspots offer dolphin and whale spotting among the various activities on offer, but the sheer number of boats heading out to circle these intelligent creatures is impacting their ability to communicate. Dolphins are incredibly smart and use a variety of unique sounds and echolocation to communicate and connect. 

Unregulated dolphin watching makes it hard for the pods to hear each other underwater, pushing them further away from the shore. This is bad for the species as they historically raise their young closer to the shore and that’s also where they find the best food. In some regions of Portugal, up to 150 boats head out to chase dolphins multiple times a day.

How can we look after the ocean while on vacation?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a tourist and wanting to explore this incredible planet, but there are a few things you can do to make your adventures more sustainable and become a more responsible tourist.


Firstly, it’s important to do your research. Learn more about the coastal habitats you're visiting, and it shouldn’t be hard to find out if there are limitations, fees or discontent about the number of tourists that visit each year. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic when all forms of tourism came to an abrupt stop, some of Thailand’s most popular beaches have managed to recover. Fewer people and fewer boats have encouraged blacktip sharks to return and breed in the area. The period encouraged Thailand to limit some of their beaches to just a few hundred people a year, and charge tourists a sustainability tax. 

Woman enjoying a rainforest
Ethical tourism is more important than ever!

Spend some time looking into sustainable accommodation, such as eco-lodges or those run and operated by the local community. Invest in reef-safe sunscreen and travel off-season to reduce your impact on the environment. 


Neglect is one of the biggest ways tourists can hurt ocean ecosystems, so disposing of trash correctly and being aware of how much water you use daily can be a huge way to protect busy coastal tourist spots. If you do want to indulge on a seafood dinner, check to make sure what you’re eating isn’t on the endangered list. 


Even if tour operators encourage touching or disturbing ocean life, it’s probably not a good idea. Avoid kicking or walking on coral when snorkeling or diving, and keep a safe distance from turtles, whales, dolphins and other marine life while admitting their beauty. If you are going to take a leisure cruise, make sure to anchor away from sensitive habitats or use an existing mooring rather than anchoring within a seagrass bed. ‍

Humans and the oceans are inextricably linked, so respect for local culture, customs and community is very important when it comes to responsible travel. Learn a few local phrases, avoid tourist traps, and travel in the off-season to lessen your footprint on popular tourist hotspots.

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