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Whale Watching: A boon to Caribbean tourism

A study produced this year by group of independent Economists located in Australia confirms that Whale Watching has become a boon to tourism in Central America and the Caribbean over the last ten years and is set to make a bigger contribution to the industry’s earnings.

 Many Caribbean countries have been the principal beneficiaries of this growth despite the support given by a few of their governments to Japan’s yen for commercial whaling.
 Japanese killing a Whale
The study entitled, “Whale Watching Worldwide”, finds that the number of whale watchers participating in tours, grew by 13% per year from 1998 to 2008 and their spending in Central American and Caribbean economies increased to US$54 million from US$11 million in 1998.  In that same period, the number of countries in the region participating in whale watching grew from 19 to 23.
Caribbean countries are at the top and bottom of the league table for the whale watching industry. Dominica’s industry is the most mature, following considerable assistance over the years from a number of non-governmental organisations led by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). At the bottom of the table, but with all the potential for a leap in the future because of its already large tourist trade is Jamaica where one operator is testing the opportunities to view sperm whales off Jamaica’s coast.
In percentage growth terms, St Lucia outstripped every country in the Caribbean and Central America. From 65 whale watchers in 1998, St Lucia had 16,650 watchers in 2008 – a growth of 74.1%. In volume terms, however, Costa Rica surpassed all other regional countries moving from 1,227 in 1998 to 105,617 for a 56.1% increase.
St Lucia is a member of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) whose members have supported Japan at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) as the government in Tokyo, in response to lobbying from a small but influential Whaling Association, has sought to extend and expand commercial whaling. In 2008, the government of Dominica – another OECS member – abandoned its support for the Japanese position acknowledging that support for whale killing is not in keeping with Dominica’s desire to promote tourism as a nature island. 
The number of Dominica’s whale watchers rose from 5,000 in 1998 to 14,500 in 2008 – a growth of 11.2%. This growth was obviously far less than St Lucia’s 74.1%, and it was even behind St Vincent and the Grenadines at 13.3% but this is due to the fact that Dominica has been offering whale watching as part of its tourist attractions longer than its two neighbours, and it started at a bigger base number than they did.
In 2008, Dominica earned US$1.78 million from whale watching, while St Lucia received US$1.57 million and St Vincent and the Grenadines got only US$206,000. 
Antigua and Barbuda – another OECS member and one with a relatively bigger tourism industry than the others – has not traditionally promoted whale watching as part of its tourism product and therefore it has not developed significant whale watching operations. But, in 2008, five hundred persons went whale watching there, spending just under US$1,000 a head directly and indirectly in the economy. 
The lead country in the region is Costa Rica which alone earned US$21.1 million from the whale watching industry in 2006, having started it in 1994. Its closest rival is the Dominican Republic, which, in 2008, pulled in close to US$9 million. 
In both these countries, whale watching has been encouraged and promoted by the government, the tourism authorities, the hotels and the calling cruise ships. They have also been strongly against whale killing and despite diplomatic and commercial relations with Japan, they have opposed that country’s whale killing stance.
Whale watching up close in Costa Rica 
This contribution by whale watching to economic growth in Central American and Caribbean countries has not been limited to this region alone. The Australiabased firm, Economists at Large & Associates, that conducted the study, showed that “more than 13 million people took whale watching tours in 2008 in 119 countries worldwide, generating a whopping $2.1 billion in total expenditures during 2008”.  The report also documents dramatic growth of the whale watching industry in Asia, the Pacific, South America, the Caribbean and Europe, significantly outpacing global tourism growth rates over the past decade.
As Patrick Ramage of IFAW pointed out in the Preface to the study, “growth like this means jobs: more than 3,000 whale watching operations around the world now employ an estimated 13,200 people”.
Against this background it is not surprising that many countries in South and Central America, Africa, Asia, Europe and North America strongly resist the threat to 30 years of whale conservation posed by Japan and a handful of European nations.  
Iceland was roundly condemned earlier this month by 26 countries which called on the Icelandic government to reassess its current whaling operations and end commercial whaling. Among the 26 countries were Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Panama, Sweden, The United Kingdom, The United States of America and Uruguay.
Iceland's previous administration granted a huge quota of both minke and fin whales for commercial hunting, but commercial whaling is supposed to be banned and fin whales are listed as endangered species. What is more Icelanders have no great appetite for whale meat; the plan is to sell it to Japan.   And whaling is no solution to Iceland’s present problems. Its economy crashed last year in the global financial crisis. Tourism is essential to its economy, and whale watching is one of the fastest growing sectors. Whale watching, not whale killing, is the industry Iceland should be strongly protecting and advocating. 
Whale slaughter - even the seas ran red
That observation is equally valid for those Caribbean countries who currently support Japan’s desire for commercial killing of whales – there is nothing for them in whale killing. Whale watching brings them revenue, jobs and another string to their tourism bow. As IFAW’s Patrick Ramage aptly puts it, “whales should be seen and not hurt”.

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