Exploring the Coral Triangle, the Amazon of the Ocean.

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As one of the most important reef systems in the world, the Coral Triangle, covers 132,636 km across six countries; Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. It occupies just 1.5% of the world’s total ocean area, but represents a full 30 percent of the world’s coral and fishes in the world. In fact, when it comes to biodiversity, it is like nowhere else in the world. More than 75 percent of the world’s coral species–over 600 species– which is ten times the number in the Caribbean Sea, live in the Triangle, fifteen of are endemic to the region, means they are not found anywhere else. But the coral is only the start of the diversity in this living system. Of the 6,000 currently known species of reef fish, 37 percent of the world’s coral reef fish live in parts of the Triangle. Two hundred and thirty-five of those species are found nowhere else. It is also a home to six out of the world’s seven marine turtles. So do aquatic mammals like blue whales, sperm whales and dolphins and endangered species like dugongs. If coral reefs are the rainforests of the seas, then the Coral Triangle is the underwater equivalent of the Amazon. Just as the Amazon is the figurehead of the world’s rainforests – the so-called lungs of the earth – the Coral Triangle is developing iconic status as a marine treasure – the wellspring of the world’s oceans. That’s why the bioregion is quickly gaining a global profile as one of the planet’s most valuable natural assets, comparable to the Amazon.

But, like most coral reefs around the world, the Coral Triangle is under threat. The reef is coming under pressure from multiple angles. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is a major threat to its fish stocks, marine ecosystems and overall fisheries sustainability of the area. Localized threats like cyanide fishing damages fish communities and the surrounding environment. Also, the continuing growth of mass tourism, while generating economic wealth to a developing region, is currently often at the expense of its natural assets. Another huge threat, like anthropogenic climate change, which is warming the seas as they become more acidic, resulting in conditions where many species of coral can’t live. On top of that, coral bleaching and white syndrome are immediate threats to many species of coral that dominate the Triangle–the Acropora corals. But there’s hope that parts of the Coral Triangle may be refuges for marine life. “High levels of biodiversity, coupled with fast rates of growth and recovery, put many Coral Triangle ecosystems in a favorable position to survive climate change,” writes the World Wildlife Fund. And with the growing awareness of the crisis facing the world’s oceans – and more specifically coral reef ecosystems – the need to highlight the impacts of overfishing, pollution and climate change has never been keener.

The Triangle region has high potential to use tourism to help support conservation. With its numerous natural attributes, mix of marine based cultures and globally significant status as a fishery, the Coral Triangle makes for fascinating subject matter. There are sharks that walk the ocean bed, marine nomads who spend their lives at sea, constant new species discoveries and incredible destinations waiting to be uncovered. The reef and coastal areas are major draws for the tourism industry and represent a significant economic resource for the region’s countries. The marine and coastal region offers exotic locales with a great diversity of unique and colorful cultures, and the environment provides wildlife viewing delights in terms of whale watching, turtle nesting, as well as bird and fish spotting. Not surprisingly the coral region is a haven for SCUBA divers and snorkelers, and an increasing number of specialist groups are catered for with charter vessels and dive packages.

 Coastal tourism has begun to mature and diversify in the western market with increasing emphasis on special interest aspects such as nature-based adventure tourism, ecotourism and wildlife watching and cultural tourism. Tourist spending on coastal and marine- based eco-tourism in the Coral Triangle is increasing each year, suggesting that the economic extent of habitat- and wildlife conservation is progressively more important for the national and local economies of the member countries. In order to have exciting wildlife encounters with flagship marine species, an increasing number of tourists are visiting Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) to participate in SCUBA diving and snorkeling activities. This growth can impose additional challenges on local governments that are already stretched for resources. Local governments often struggle to ensure that developments for visitors are built and operated sustainably; they have to manage increased productions of waste, provide sufficient water and energy supplies. Some Coral Triangle governments have introduced measures to counter these adverse consequences of tourism development by setting daily visitor quotas for marine parks or investing in essential support infrastructure. Various non-profit organizations have been developing tools to help the nature-based tourism industry operate in a more sustainable way, for example by providing guidelines and support for non-intrusive interaction with wildlife, sustainable food and beverage, garbage disposal solutions and reducing energy consumption.

 The following is a small cross-section of some current Nature-based Tourism operations in each of the Coral Triangle countries. They are not intended to be representative of the offerings in each country, but rather to highlight some examples of varying scales and with a range of different characteristics.

Timor-Leste: Dive Timor Lorosae, Dili

Based in Dili, Dive Timor Lorosae (DTL) was one of the first dive shops established in Timor-Leste just over 10 years ago and is the country’s only PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Centre. DTL offer a full range of professional PADI dive courses and daily diving trips. They have their own Hotel/Apartment, Guest House and Backpacker accommodation in Central Dili. They work with local organizations to organize regular beach clean ups to raise awareness about marine debris, and to mark World Oceans Day and Coral Triangle Day. They also work with organisations to undertake underwater scientific expeditions & biodiversity monitoring.

Solomon Islands: Oravae Cottage

Oravae Cottage is a collection of 3 small guesthouses located on a private island overlooking a lagoon just off the mainland near Gizo. The company has helped establish a locally managed marine area around their premises and relies on solar power and tank water to ensure a low environmental impact. They have also established coral and clam farming projects and work with local schools to raise awareness on the importance of marine conservation.

  • Papua New Guinea: Madang Resort Hotel, Madang

The Madang Resort Hotel is a more mainstream resort based at the entrance to Madang Harbor, facing onto Dallman Passage and Yamilon Lagoon. Niugini Diving Adventures, a dive shop and PADI Dive training facility, is part of the resort complex. The company promotes sustainable management of marine and forest resources by the local communities to foster community tourism as part of its sustainable development agenda. The town and province of Madang is described as ‘a place where travelers can experience a diverse range of cultural and natural attractions.’

  •  Philippines: Lagen Island Resort

Set in a cove surrounded by primary forest, Lagen Island Resort promotes itself as a showcase of El Nido’s flora and fauna, with opportunities for wildlife sightings. El Nido Resorts (which includes Lagen Island) have been involved in preventing illegal fishing, rehabilitating watersheds and environmental education programs. In 2011, El Nido Resorts was selected to take part in the European Union-sponsored ‘Zero Carbon Resorts’ program, which aims to reduce the tourism industry’s carbon footprint. El Nido was also the recipient of the ‘Wild Asia Responsible Tourism Award 2009’ and was a finalist for the ‘Tourism for Tomorrow Awards 2007’.

  • Indonesia: Misool Eco Resort, Papua

Located on a private island off West Papua, Misool Eco Resort is a collection of 9 luxury cottages, with the resort structured financially to also provide a direct contribution to local marine conservation activities. Misool Eco Resort has gone to great lengths to reduce both the impact of its own operations, whilst also extending its environmental responsibility to the area surrounding the resort. With the full cooperation of the local community, Misool established a 465km No-Take Zone, with local staff regularly patrolling the area to prevent fishing and shark fining. For its environmental efforts, Misool was highly commended by the ‘Virgin Responsible Tourism Awards’ in 2009, while it also received an ‘Ocean Award’ in 2011.

  •  Malaysia: Kuala Sepetang Eco Tourism (Near Matang Mangroves Forest Reserve, Perak)

Kuala Sepetang Eco Tourism is a tour provider based in Kuala Sepetang, adjacent to the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve. Their focus is on promoting responsible tourism, environmental conservation and education, and providing tours that are both low impact and sustainable – and involve the local community. As well as general tours to the mangrove forest, they also offer Indo-Pacific Humpback and Irrawaddy River Dolphin viewing tours, Firefly viewing tours, and river tours including bird watching. The Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve is Peninsular Malaysia’s largest surviving spread of mangrove forest, most of which has been extensively cleared for development. The 40,000-hectare area was gazette as a Permanent Forest Reserve in 1906 and is recognized as one of the best-managed sustainable mangrove ecosystem in the world.

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