13 July 2015

Financing Marine Protected Areas through visitors fees: A possible solution for biodiversity conservation

by Pamela Padilla and Andrés Ospina


It is estimated that the cost to maintain the protected area Lafken Mapu Lahual in southern Chile is about US$343,620 annually to cover expenses associated to administration, surveillance and enforcement. Lafken Mapu Lahual covers 32km of exposed coast, and within its limits valuable species such as Peale’s dolphin, the South American sea lion, sea otters, humpback whales and blue whales can be found. The Chilean government hasn’t provided enough to Lafken Mapu Lahual nor its treasures. But could visitor’s fees help finance marine protected areas (MPAs) and conserve biodiversity?

According to a study from 2013, published in the journal AMBIO, donor funding could work for marine conservation. “97 percent of respondents were willing to pay an entrance fee,” the authors write. With Chile occupying ninth place among countries that designate the least amount of money to biodiversity conservation, on whom does the responsibility of conserving MPAs lie? How can the management of MPAs ensure a system of adequate funding?

The problem with MPAs

MPAs are special places in which the main goal is to preserve the ecosystem’s integrity, either by a sustainable use of its resources or by the complete exclusion of human activity in the zone. The signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 encouraged the creation of dozens of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) on a global level. Countries that are members, including Chile, which now has 44 MPAs, agreed to preserve biodiversity, to use natural resources in a sustainable manner and to the exchange and open access of genetic resources and the benefits they may bring.

Even though the role of MPAs and purpose are admirable, the reality is that many of these protected areas haven’t been working as they are supposed to. Some of them, created only as a commitment by the government to fulfill what is agreed on the treaty, haven’t evolved further than what is nominally a “paper park”. This is to say, the area is legally protected, on paper, but the activities developed to preserve the biodiversity aren’t really effective. One of the main reasons is because their legal designation is only the first step in the whole process, after which there must be financing that ensures conservation activities.

Visitors fees

Stefan Gelcich, a professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and his collaborators evaluated the possible financial contribution that MPA visitor fees could have in Lafken Mapu Lahual in southern Chile. Specifically, researchers assessed among tourists the “willingness to pay” (WTP).

The study, which consisted of surveys of 604 randomly chosen tourists, asked tourists to rate how they would feel if a fee were imposed on them to help conserve biodiversity and implement recreational programs, specific conservation programs for marine mammals, and educational programs.

It was explained to the tourists that these modifications would improve the functioning of the MPA, but that in order to do that a certain budget was needed and the entrance fee was a possible way to obtain it. After knowing their opinion on whether they would pay this fee or not, a social-demographic profile of each tourist that visited the area was created in order to understand what kind of tourist would be willing to pay more, less or not pay at all for visiting the MPA.

From the people surveyed, more than half lived less than 300km away from Lafken Mapu Lahual, and just a 2 percent were foreigners. The average monthly income of the tourists was about US$1084, and a 68 percent had a university degree. This last number is important, because on a national scale the percentage of persons with a degree is roughly a 16 percent. From here it may be concluded that having a certain degree of education, could be a determinant that influences the awareness of the well being of our environment.

From all the tourists, more than half (65 percent) preferred to spend the day at the beach, sunbathing, rather than contemplating a more natural environment. In general, everyone knew the existence of Marine Protected Areas, but weren’t aware of the ecological benefits they brought. Tourists that preferred a natural environment over sunbathing were in fact, willing to pay more for the entrance to the MPA and expressed a bigger sensitivity to crowded places. On the other hand, tourists who clearly expressed they didn’t know the benefits of the MPA, were less willing to pay more money for an entrance.

Under the light of the results of this investigation, it could be said that an easy access to information and a good education are correlated with a positive valuation and a good disposition to pay a higher fee for the entrance to a MPA. Informed visitors value biodiversity, without expecting these places to be a beach resort, with easy access, shops, internet, or any other thing that could go against the management plan, endangering the main goal of these areas: conserving biodiversity in a natural environment.

However, under the best circumstances, this is to say, with the adequate amount of tourists willing to pay a reasonable entrance fee, the amount of money collected is not enough to pay for all the expenses of the MPA. It barely covers a 10 to 13 percent of them. And even if it were enough, experts suggest that it is very important to have other reliable sources of income, just in case the entrance fee method fails. This way, the MPA wouldn’t need to shut down.

In conclusion, even though money collected through entrance fees may help the financing of a MPA, alternative ways of income are necessary. Evaluating which ways could be possible could be the next challenge for Gelcich and his team. Additionally, this study reveals the importance that environmental education has, from elementary school to the university level. It is also necessary for there to be easy access to environmental information that helps explain the importance of biodiversity. The first challenge to conserving our biodiversity is to breakdown the inequality in education. To educate is to conserve. 

Pamela Padilla and Andrés Ospina

Pamela Padilla is a marine biologist at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She is currently working with the Centro de Conservación Marina in Chile.

Andrés Ospina works on conservation and marine biology at the Centro de Conservación Marina in Chile as well.