Posted on 14 December 2021

Covid-19, integrity and ‘blue washing’ – marine ecotourism operators share their thoughts and concerns for the future

As the nation gears up to explore their own backyard this summer, the country’s tourism industry is firmly focused on developing more sustainable ways to host domestic and international visitors. A new report from the Growing marine ecotourism project discusses findings from a national survey and interviews conducted with marine ecotourism operators.

“If you’re doing ecotourism, you’re doing things in a way that leaves very little footprint on the environment,” explains one operator quoted in the report. “It’s about being true to that philosophy, but also making sure that you’ve got a way that you can get people to connect with that, winning hearts and minds.”

The report delves into the motivations behind why Aotearoa’s marine ecotourism operators are in business. The research also examines the impact of COVID-19 on the sector and highlights the challenges and opportunities that face operators as they emerge from international border closures and domestic lockdowns.

“The marine ecotourism sector deals with nature, conservation and marine resources. But, more importantly, it has great potential to link back to community and local economic development,” explains Prof Simon Milne, from the New Zealand Tourism Research Institute at Auckland University of Technology and Co-leader of the project.

“In interviews, we asked what marine ecotourism means to operators and how they would define their success. What came through strongly was these are people who actively care for the coastal and marine environment and who want to give back to the communities who host their operations,” says Milne.

The team also found some operators are not comfortable with the term ecotourism because of the potential for misuse and ‘blue’ washing. There is a strong sense that operators who claim to be doing ‘eco’tourism need to be held accountable to the promises they make.

This report is part 2 of a sector review to establish baseline data for the small but flourishing marine ecotourism sector in Aotearoa. Both reports show the vital role that marine ecotourism can play in supporting the country’s regions and communities to thrive – socially, culturally, environmentally and economically.

The recently published first report includes free resources for planners, regional development, business and iwi/hapū. These resources show the location and extent of the marine ecotourism industry and are designed to incorporate new initiatives and data over time. The resources can also support and facilitate networking amongst operators. The researchers developed a database from online information to provide a range of quantitative baseline information about marine and coastal ecotourism across Aotearoa New Zealand. The database informs an interactive Google map that displays the location of operators and what they offer, such as diving or wildlife viewing. A data dashboard provides an interactive platform that gives users more detail and the ability to easily compare across regions and types of activities.

Both reports use a broad definition of marine ecotourism: low impact (non-extractive) marine and coastal tourism activities. However, because each operator works differently in their locality across a wide range of different coastal and marine activities, creating a firm definition may not adequately represent the sector.

“Māori understandings of marine and coastal ecotourism make the Aotearoa context unique,” explains Milne. “Personally, I am not sure we’ll end up with a firm definition. Instead, we may need to work with a continuum based on measurement frameworks that will allow people to understand where they sit on that spectrum.”

Understanding marine ecotourism is important because it will help Aotearoa move towards having a more sustainable marine economy – known as a ‘blue economy’. “The marine ecotourism industry has great potential to be at the forefront of more regenerative approaches to tourism development in New Zealand,” says Milne.


Media resources

Available for interview

  • Simon Milne (AUT) – Project Co-Leader and report author, 021 671232
  • Keri-Anne Wikitera (AUT) - Researcher and report author 
  • Eilidh Thorburn (AUT) – Researcher and report author  

Baseline review: part 1

The first report identifies 303 marine and coastal ecotourism operators across New Zealand with more operators based in the North Island (57%) than the South Island (43%). Scenic cruising is the dominant activity, split evenly between the North and South Island, followed by wildlife viewing. The second report includes in-depth interviews with 28 marine and coastal ecotourism operators and a national survey covering 93 respondents during the period 6–30 June 2021. 

Multimedia resources


Blue economy – The Sustainable Seas Challenge defines a ‘blue’ economy as being made up of marine activities that generate economic value and contribute positively to social, cultural and ecological well-being.

About the Sustainable Seas Challenge – The vision of Sustainable Seas is for Aotearoa New Zealand to have healthy marine ecosystems that provide value for all New Zealanders. It brings together around 250 ecologists, biophysical scientists, social scientists, economists, and experts in mātauranga Māori and policy from across Aotearoa New Zealand. It is funded by MBIE and hosted by NIWA.   
Twitter | LinkedIn | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

About the National Science Challenges 

Sustainable Seas is one of 11 National Science Challenges funded by MBIE. These align and focus Aotearoa New Zealand's research on large and complex issues, bringing together scientists and experts from different organisations and across disciplines to achieve a common goal.

More Posts

Related projects & activities

Growing marine ecotourism
Credit: Dive Tutukaka
Growing marine ecotourism

Developing marine ecotourism that embraces regenerative principles and supports a blue economy.