Tourism benefits of the Cocos Marine Conservation Area in Costa Rica


Wolfs Company conducted a key study for the understanding of potential financing solutions for marine conservation in the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica. By investigating the willingness to pay of tourists for an enhanced protection of the Cocos Marine Conservation Area (ACMC, in Spanish), the study offers insight into the tourism value of this area and the existing opportunities to generate additional funds for its conservation.

The ACMC protects some of the most extensive and biodiverse reefs, seamounts and transit zones in the Eastern Tropical Pacific migratory corridor. The area is known for the abundance of iconic shark species and outstanding fish biomass.  However, it is exposed to intense fishing pressure. 

Options to regulate the use and management of the waters surrounding the ACMC are under discussion, including the possible expansion of its marine protected areas to minimize the effect of stressors. These plans are part of joint transboundary efforts of Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Colombia to protect this important marine corridor, as leaders of these countries announced at COP26 in 2021 (read more here or here).

In support of the ongoing discussions on the future of the ACMC, the Friends of Cocos Island Foundation (FAICO) commissioned Wolfs Company to carry out a primary study on the value of the ACMC’s habitats and species for the visitors to the area. This was an important piece to complement and complete socioeconomic studies that the International Centre of Economic Policy for Sustainable Development (CINPE) of the National University of Costa Rica (UNA) and the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), among others, conducted in the ACMC in parallel. 

Tourists’ willingness to pay for increased protection of the ACMC’s habitats and species

The study reveals that maintaining healthy shark populations is crucial in economic terms. It is estimated that tourism associated with the observation of live sharks generates an annual income 45 times higher than the income generated by the sale of their meat (i.e. dead sharks).

Extensive surveying efforts show that 99% of tourists visit the ACMC to practice scuba diving, and a possible decline of the shark population could jeopardize up to 95% of tourism income, which totals US$19,7 million per year (SINAC, 2020). Most visitors stated that they would not return to the area if the marine environment and populations of migratory species, such as sharks, were to deteriorate.

The findings of the study also support possible increases in tourist fees at the ACMC, given that these would contribute towards an improved protection of key habitats and species for this economic sector. Establishing financing mechanisms based on tourists’ willingness to pay could annually raise between US$83,000 (conservative estimate) and US$230,000 (optimistic estimate) in additional funds to support marine management and conservation within the ACMC. 

This improved protection would also help maintain the populations of many relevant species for the fishing sector.

Through a complementary project (ongoing), Wolfs Company is also assessing the financial needs for effective marine management in the ACMC and other conservation areas in Costa Rica, while formulating further recommendations to mobilize financial resources towards the marine protected areas throughout the country.