It is not just residents in coastal areas and scientists that are utilising the marine environment in Ireland. Tourism has always been associated with sun, sea, and sand, and this continues to be the case today. 63% of all tourists make use of the coastal regions (Davenport and Davenport, 2006), and with decreasing costs of airfare and travel, this figure is expected to rise. By 2020, it is estimated that over 350 million tourists will annually utilise the coasts of the Mediterranean alone (World Tourism Organization, 2004). With the increased desires of tourists to explore the natural world while holidaying, the ecotourism industry has been growing rapidly in recent years. Hillwalking, SCUBA, kayaking, and whale watching are just some examples of how the coastal marine environment has been utilised as a valuable form of tourism driven economics. Although deemed as low environmental impact activities, there have been noted detrimental effects on the ecosystem as both direct and indirect results of the ecotourism industry.
The Impacts of Ecotourism
The greatest of these threats comes from the expansion of infrastructure, such as the construction of hotels, improvement of roadways, and increased footfall and traffic (Davenport and Davenport, 2006). Habitat destruction, pollution, litter, and direct disturbance of wildlife, are all widely occurring during infrastructure expansion. Personal watercraft and poorly trained SCUBA divers have also had noted effects on the marine environment through disturbing marine animals, damage to habitats, and the re-suspension of sediments (Cubero-Pardo and Bastidas, 2008).
Anchor damage and ballast discharge have also been mentioned as two leading causes of decline in coastal marine biodiversity, both in Ireland and the world in general (Lewis, 1985). Beach walkers can accidentally trample plant life, which plays a major role in the maintenance of sand dune structure and stability. Uninformed whale watching tour operators can unintentionally traumatise and frighten whale and dolphin species by being in too close a proximity to the animals. Kayakers can potentially damage marine life attached to piers, jetties and, slipways. There is potential pressure brought in with each activity that can only be reduced through ecological awareness and correct practice.
Ecotourism and South West Cork
By in large, Irish ecotourism operators, particularly in south west Cork, are in good practice and well informed on environmental issues, and how to best reduce the impacts while still maintaining a viable business. Most SCUBA training agencies incorporate the importance of correct technique and control to avoid damage and disturbance to marine life. Sand dune walkways, such as those found at Barleycove (also a designated proposed SAC), help keep walkers away from sensitive areas, thus preserving the natural dune structure. Whale watchers are well informed and educated enforcing strict time and distance restrictions, many of which vary by the species in question. It is for reasons like these that the threat posed by ecotourism in Ireland is being minimised, allowing it to continue to draw thousands of tourists to the coast each year.