Calculating the value of Whale Shark tourism

The challengue

The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme wanted to estimate the value of a healthy and thriving whale shark population has for local communities and the wider economy. Efforts to protect and Whale Sharks and their habitat in the Maldives were often hindered because the economic benefit of live animals is hard to quantify. Meanwhile, the economic case of extractive activities like fishing is more widely acknowledged by authorities.

The solution

I used machine learning to estimate the total direct revenue from Whale Shark tourism cost-effectively. Specifically, I used known expenditure data from liveaboards and tour boats and used it to estimate the expenditure from vessels we had no information about. Then, I combined that data with time-series models of visitation to the area and used bootstrap and jackknife resampling to quantify the uncertainty of our estimates.

The result

I estimated that Whale Sharks are visited by about 75,000 tourists. These tourists bring almost 10 million dollars to the local economy, on whale shark excursions alone. The results provided an impetus to enhanced protection and were central to creating a management plan for a marine protected area in 2019. It was the first time machine learning was used to calculate tourism expenditure for wildlife. The results were published as a scientific paper in 2014.