soundnet page header

This important report was published by IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) in August 2000 and updated in 2001. It was researched and written by Erich Hoyt.

Whale Watching 2001

Worldwide Tourism Numbers, Expenditures,
and Expanding Socioeconomic Benefits

A special report from the

International Fund for Animal Welfare


Researched and written by Erich Hoyt, published August 2001

(Based partly on previous research from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society)

Executive Summary and Conclusions

Whale watching as a commercial endeavor - with important educational, environmental, scientific, and other socioeconomic benefits - is now at least a $1 billion USD industry attracting more than 9 million participants a year in 87 countries and territories.

Through the late 1990s, whale watching has continued to grow at a rapid rate. Since the last worldwide survey in 1994 (Hoyt, 1995), the number of countries and overseas territories where whale watching occurs has increased from 65 to 87. In 1991, only 31 countries were involved in whale watching. At the same time, the number of whale watchers has increased from a little more than 4 million for the year 1991, and 5.4 million for the year 1994, to 9 million in 1998. Total whale watching tourism expenditures, estimated at $504 million USD (£311 million GBP) in 1994, grew to $1,049 million USD (£655 million GBP) in 1998.

As a further measure of its prevalence, whale watching is now carried on in some 492 communities around the world - nearly 200 more than in 1994. In many places, whale watching provides valuable, sometimes crucial income to a community, with the creation of new jobs and businesses. It helps foster an appreciation of the importance of marine conservation, and provides a ready platform for researchers wanting to study cetaceans or the marine environment. Whale watching offers communities a sense of identity and considerable pride. In a number of places, it does all of the above, literally transforming a community.

This report covers watching of all cetaceans, not just large whales. "Whale watching" is thus defined as tours by boat, air or from land, formal or informal, with at least some commercial aspect, to see, swim with, and/or listen to any of the some 83 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises. As well as tours that are strictly whale- or dolphin-oriented, I have also calculated the contribution from general nature tours and cruises which feature whales and dolphins as a prominent aspect, such as Alaskan and Antarctic cruises and Gal‡pagos boat tours. However, in these cases, the numbers and expenditures included in this report have been reduced (to between 10% and 50% of the total) to reflect only the estimated value of the cetacean component of the trip.

Here is a summary of my key findings:

  • Since 1991, when 4 million people went whale watching, the number of people participating has increased by an average of 12.1% per year, reaching more than 9 million in 1998. Whale watching grew even more rapidly in the mid to late 1990s (13.6% per year) than it did in the early 1990s (when the rate was 10.3% per year). The direct expenditures (the amount whale watchers spent on the tours) increased from $77 million USD in 1991 to $299.5 million USD in 1998 - an average annual increase of 21.4%. The total expenditures (the amount whale watchers spent on the tours, as well as travel, food, hotels and souvenirs) increased from $317.9 million USD in 1991 to $1,049 million USD in 1998 - an average annual increase of 18.6%. (The percentages for direct and total expenditures are not adjusted for inflation.)

  • Of the some 87 countries and overseas territories or dependencies with some level of commercial whale watching, the breakdown is 66 independent countries and 21 overseas territories or dependencies, including Antarctica.

  • Worldwide, there are 22 new countries that have started whale watch tours since 1994, including St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, Namibia, Oman, Taiwan, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands.

  • 34 of the 40 member countries (85%) of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) countries now have at least some whale watching activity. Some 7,731,885 people a year currently go whale watching in IWC countries (or territories of these countries), spending a total of $779,828,000 USD. Most whale watching (86%) occurs within IWC countries. Canada is the main country outside of the IWC where whale watching occurs, with a little more than one million whale watchers in 1998. (See Appendix 3 for a listing of all IWC countries and associated territories with a breakdown of each country's whale watch statistics).

  • The "million whale watch club" is expanding. In 1994, only one country, the United States, could claim more than a million whale watchers. Today, there are three countries or areas that can make this claim: besides the United States, Canada and the Canary Islands (Spain) have recently surpassed 1 million whale watchers a year. Two countries with half a million or more, both of which will likely soon have 1 million a year, are Australia and South Africa.

  • Some of the communities transformed by whale watching - that is, having substantial economic and, in some cases, educational and scientific benefit from whale watching - include: Kaikoura, New Zealand; Provincetown, Massachusetts, USA; Tofino and Telegraph Cove, in British Columbia, Canada; Ogata and Ogasawara, Japan; Andenes, Norway; Hermanus, South Africa; Tadoussac, Quebec, Canada; Friday Harbor, Washington, USA; Lahaina, Hawaii, USA; Puerto Pir‡mides, San Julian, and Puerto Deseado, Argentina; Hervey Bay, Byron Bay, and Monkey Mia, Australia; Dingle, Ireland; Rincon, Puerto Rico; Husavik, Iceland; Guerrero Negro, Mexico; among others.

  • Most of the some 83 species of cetaceans are included in whale watch programs, with the exception of the beaked whales. The most common focal species for whale watching industries are humpback whales, gray whales, northern and southern right whales, blue whales, minke whales, sperm whales, short-finned pilot whales, orcas, and bottlenose dolphins. Two of these (blue and northern right whales) are classified as endangered species, while two others (humpback and southern right whales) are considered vulnerable (IUCN Red Data Book). There is no doubt that all four species would be watched more if they could be reliably found in more locations; wherever they are found, they are very popular. The percentage of whale watchers who focus on smaller cetaceans is steadily increasing. Besides the proven appeal of watching orcas, pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins, a number of countries have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people taking swim-with-dolphin tours (New Zealand, Australia, Japan). The lesser known smaller cetaceans can also attract seasoned whale watchers eager to see the smaller and sometimes more unusual species. Other vulnerable or rare species, typically with rare or limited distribution but forming part of whale watch programs, include the Ganges river dolphin or susu (India & Nepal), boto or Amazon River dolphin (Amazon basin), Hector's dolphin (New Zealand), Heaviside's dolphin (South Africa and Namibia), Commerson's dolphin (mainly Argentina), northern bottlenose whale (mainly Nova Scotia), and the bowhead whale and narwhal (both in the Arctic).

  • Photographic identification (individual photo-ID studies using natural markings and pigmentation on the bodies of living whales) is now a component of whale watching in some 46 countries and overseas territories - 53% of all countries where there is some whale watching. However, regular photo-ID shots are taken on only a small percentage of operations in each country. The most common form of whale watching is boat-based (72% of all whale watching), everything from kayaks to converted ferry ships. Yet, more than 2.55 million people in ten main countries participated in land-based whale watching (28% of all whale watching). Land-based whale watching has substantial commercial implications in four of these countries: South Africa; Canada (especially in Quˇbec, also British Columbia and Newfoundland); Australia (in Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria); and the United States (in California, Oregon, and Washington State). Less than .001 of all whale watching (< 10,000 participants a year) consists of fixed-wing or helicopter tours.

  • In most countries, whale watching is primarily one of the tourism activities of outside (foreign) visitors and, as such, a source of foreign currency. However, the following countries draw the majority of their whale watchers from their own country: the United States, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and a few others. In many cases, they too are visiting "tourists" from one region of a country to another, but they do not bring in foreign currency. However, most of the above countries with the exception of Japan also have substantial numbers of outside visitors going whale watching and because of the sheer size of the industry in these countries, the numbers of foreign visitors certainly outnumber most of the total numbers for many smaller whale watch countries.

  • Some 4.3 million people went whale watching in the USA in 1998. Compared to the rest of the world, 47.8% of all whale watching occurs in the United States. Whale watching started here in 1955 and it continues to flourish in all regions, though it appears, finally, to be leveling off, though still posting a 4.17% average annual growth rate between 1991 and 1998.

  • The fastest growing whale watch country in the world between 1994 and 1998, in countries with more than 5,000 whale watchers, is Taiwan, which went from zero to about 30,000 whale watchers during the period. The four next highest rates of increase between 1994 and 1998 are as follows: Iceland (250.9% avg. annual increase), Italy (139.9%), Spain (123.6%) and South Africa (112.5%). The fastest growing continental region for whale watching is Africa, with an average 53.0% annual increase between 1994 and 1998. Second fastest was Central America and the West Indies (47.4%), followed by Asia (31.7%).

  • Iceland's extraordinary average annual growth rate of 250.9% from the mid to late 1990s is one of the highest ever growth rates in whale watching. In 1994, some 200 people went whale watching from one community; by 1998, there were 30,330 taking trips from eight communities. Iceland offers close-up encounters with minke, blue and humpback whales, as well as orcas and Atlantic white-sided and white-beaked dolphins. There is some evidence from visitor surveys that the whale watch growth in Iceland might not have been so rapid if the country had resumed whaling.
  • Whale watching in Japan has grown much faster than the average world rate throughout the 1990s. Between 1994 and 1998, whale watching in Japan grew 16.8% per year; from 1991 to 1998, the average increase was 37.6% per year. As of 1998, some 102,785 people went whale and dolphin watching in Japan, spending an estimated nearly $33 million USD. This is nearly double the number of people who participated in 1994 (55,000). The most commonly watched cetaceans are humpback, Bryde's, minke, and sperm whales, as well as bottlenose and other dolphins.

  • Norway has experienced growth at 18.8% a year since 1994. In Norway, in 1998, 22,380 people took whale watch trips, spending more than $12 million USD. The main operation at Andenes in northern Norway, which offers sperm whales as well as several baleen whale species and dolphins, is well-rounded, responsible for contributing many diverse socioeconomic values to the community (especially in the area of education, research, and community identity which has contributed to successful tourism marketing). In the Tysfjord area, in autumn, spectacular concentrations of orcas are offered to whale watchers. Visitors annually come from more than 30 countries to these two locations, with operators typically catering for two to six languages on the tours.

  • South Africa has seen a change as well as an increase in whale watching. From an industry that was almost completely based on watching southern right whales from land, there have been expanding socioeconomic benefits in the land-based and, now, in the boat-based sector, too, including dolphins, humpback whales and even Bryde's whales. In 1998, about 500,000 people went whale watching from land at Hermanus alone. In late 1998, licenses were given for boat-based whale watching for the first time in many areas of the coast. Over the next few years, whale watching can be expected to continue to grow steadily in South Africa, with a million participants a year possible within the next decade.

This report is based on original research and surveys covering the activities of whale watch and other marine operators around the world. Data gathered was checked and compared with existing tourism data, papers, and reports as well as with knowledgable persons in tourism departments, local NGOs, and cetacean researchers.

As in two previous whale watch reports in 1992 and 1995, I have largely used tourism expenditures to chart the worldwide growth of whale watching. There has been no effort to include in these valuations whale-watching-induced (sometimes termed indirect) revenues, such as the amounts spent by whale watch employers and employees. Recent whale watch studies in Hawaii and Tonga have confidently included such numbers in their calculations, but it would be difficult to do this for every country due to the inappropriateness of using existing multipliers as well as the time it would take to devise new multipliers. Thus, a decision was taken to present only the visitor expenditures (spends) as a conservative indication of economic benefits. Tourism expenditures are the numbers that are the most straightforward, and the least controversial, to measure. They are also readily understood and accepted by politicians, bureaucrats, tourism departments, and the general public. Finally, they provide a means of continuing to chart the growth of whale watching, since this approach has been used now for nearly two decades.

These tourism expenditures, even though they are substantial, represent conservative measures of the socioeconomic benefits of whale watching. Little data exists on the overall socioeconomic values of whale watching, but in this report an effort was made to assemble existing information in a whale watching "socioeconomic benefits profile" for each country.

Thus, we also have accounts of:

  • dozens of whale festivals in coastal communities in different parts of the world (nine in California alone) with a multi-million dollar socioeconomic impact aside from whale-watch tours.

  • whales and dolphins being used for tourism marketing by operators and other businesses in whale watch communities, as well as for marketing of communities, regions, and even countries, and coastal and marine protected areas. This shows the extensive value of using cetaceans for marketing, especially since they tend to attract environmentally conscious, high spending tourists.

  • the econometric estimation of the demand relationship for whale watching which,,using a discount rate of 5%, results in a figure on the order of $440 million USD as the capitalized economic value of whale watching in Massachusetts alone (Hoagland and Meeks, 1997).

  • scientific programs of a number of research organizations which were started and have flourished because of a close relationship with commercial whale watching. These groups provide naturalists/scientists who narrate the trips and who are also paid and are allowed to do photo-identification and other research. The value of having a whale watch boat as a platform for research has been estimated at $1,000 USD a day. The seven main boats from the operations working on Stellwagen Bank on southern New England who have regular naturalists doing research work a minimum of 125 days a year, providing an annual benefit of $875,000 USD (7 x 125 x $1,000 USD a day). One research group alone makes $56,000 USD per year for its research program by being allowed to sell T-shirts and other merchandise on the boat (Hoyt, 1994b).

In a few cases, I have been able to obtain other valuable economic data such as the rate of return from whale watch businesses, as well as valuations of the whales themselves based on contingency valuation studies or other work. These are included, too. For example, the rate of return for successful whale watching businesses, as reported by several long-time operators, is at least 10% a year.

The primary conclusion from this report is that whale watching is worth a great deal in tourist expenditures but that this is just a part of the picture. Looking at the vast range of socioeconomic benefits, many of them difficult to quantify, we see that whale watching has become extraordinarily valuable around the world in many unexpected yet pervasive ways. What about the future of whale watching? According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), world tourism arrivals are predicted to continue to grow on average by 3-4% annually beyond 2000. With whale watching growing at 12.1% per year throughout the 1990s, and by 13.6% per year from 1994-1998, it seems likely that whale watching will continue to grow at a faster rate than world tourism for at least a few years to come.


| Homepage | SoundNet | Expedition | Youth | Whales Shop | Subscribe | Links |