A decade of whale watching in an important tourist destination in the Pacific coast of Colombia:
Challenges for proper management
Uramba Bahía Málaga Natural National Park is one of the most important places visited by tourists to see humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Colombia. Humpback whales arrive from Southern Chile and the Antarctic Peninsula every year between May and December to reproduce, give birth and rear calves. To evaluate the current state of whale-watching in Málaga we analyzed tourist visitation data from 2011 to 2019 during the peak whale-watching season (July–October), and during one week in October 2020. We found that whale-watching activity has increased considerably. In 2019, 21,186 tourists realized whale watching in Málaga. Whale watchers per month increased by 108% and monthly whale-watching boat trips increased by 140%, in the last decade. Currently there are in average 19 boat trips per day (±18.0), and most boats are small (≤15 m). Tourists came mainly from Colombia (90%). August was the most important month for whale watching. Although environmental education activities are undertaken, currently responsible whale-watching guidelines are overlooked. At present, whale-watching activity produces important economic benefits for local people and neighboring sites, with a monthly expenditure of at least $362,409 USD, but to ensure the sustainable continuity of this activity, negative impacts on whales need to be minimized. We classified management challenges into social, economic and biological aspects. From a social perspective, operators should form a whale-watching community association; this would improve cooperation amongst operators, promote good practices in whale-watching and reduce pressure on whales. Economic recommendations include 1) whale-watching trips handled mainly by local people; 2) ticket prices unification; and 3) investment in tourist facilities. Biological recommendations focus on the welfare of whales and include: 1) follow the current whalewatching recommendations strictly; 2) reduce transit speeds to below 10 knots in the area during whale season; 3) use propeller guards; 4) promote land-based whale watching; 5) implement acoustic whale tourism; 6) reinforce environmental education programs; and 7) support long-term monitoring and scientific research. Based on these three aspects, we urge environmental and ethnic authorities, conferring with relevant stakeholders, to determine the whale-watching carrying capacity of the area and to promote a responsible tourism. Authorities need to strengthen the monitoring, oversight and control of this growing tourist activity in order to ensure its long-term persistence.
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