How to kiss a whale for research

PhD researcher Tania Romero Brito kissing a gray whale.
PhD researcher Tania Romero Brito kissing a gray whale.

By Tania Romero Brito

It is a once on a lifetime experience to kiss a gray whale, swim with a whale shark or see one of the largest cave paintings in the World.

It’s just those experiences that bring tourists to Mexico’s El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve and to Bahia de los Angles. Both of these sites are protected by the Mexican Government and by Pronatura, that nation’s largest and oldest conservation NGO. Pronatura decided to make tourism a key platform of its conservation efforts, because tourists can help to fund conservation, but only if there is access, infrastructure, and tourism enterprises on the ground or the ocean.

You cannot kiss a whale unless there is an airport or a highway to reach the area, a hotel in which to stay, a guide who knows when and where to find whales, a boat to take you out, and local laws which allow boats to approach the whales, while ensuring they do not disturb them.

But first, someone must show local communities how to provide these services, and demonstrate that in return they could earn enough money to develop community projects, increase their own family incomes and protect the area where they live. That takes time, and trust.

For four years that was my job. I worked for Pronatura, first setting up a whale shark ecotourism management plan, and then developing a cave painting conservation project with a community-based tourism enterprise.

Now I am using that experience in my PhD at Griffith University’s International Centre for Ecotourism Research on the Gold Coast. I am studying how conservation NGOs decide when and where to use tourism as part of their conservation strategies. As part of my project I will go back to Mexico to study these ecotourism projects, and many more from Pronatura and other NGOs, but this time, not as the person responsible for making them work.

There are at least 200 case studies worldwide with some published information about NGO-based ecotourism initiatives. These cases show that there are many different models used for different projects and places, with varying degrees of success. While evaluations of success factors have been carried out on a local scale, as yet there have been no global comparisons, and as such this will be the first step of my project. Furthermore, none of the previous studies have explored how or why the NGOs concerned chose to use tourism for the particular projects, and this will therefore form the basis of my research question.

I have chosen to focus on Mexico because it is my country, I am familiar with its context, and I am concerned about conserving its biological and cultural diversity. I think that Pronatura does a good job, and I want to help them and other NGOs to understand their role in developing tourism projects to conserve the whales, cave paintings and many other parts of Mexico’s natural and cultural heritage.

TaniaRomero-Brito is a PhD Candidate at the International Centre for Ecotourism Research at Griffith’s Gold Coast campus.