Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

W&L Researchers Examine the Economic Value of Coastal and Marine Resources

How much are tourists visiting Belize willing to pay in conservation fees? A pilot study by Washington and Lee economics professor James F. Casey and a team of W&L students suggests it’s much more than the $3.75 fee that the country currently charges.

Casey and nine students visited Belize during the 2012 spring term to study the economic value of coastal and marine resources, focusing on coral reefs, fish populations, coastal development, and the ecological benefits of marine ecosystems.

While there, the students asked tourists to complete a survey about their willingness to pay a fee to protect natural resources. . The current conservation fee is bundled into a $39 exit charge that is collected when leaving the country. The survey addressed three questions: What is the maximum conservation fee tourists would pay? What do tourists want to protect? Would knowing the current fee affect their maximum willingness to pay?

“The student researchers approached over 220 tourists and got 188 to answer the survey,” said Casey. “Our initial numbers suggest that tourists would pay up to almost $30 if they knew it would go toward conservation.”

The trip wasn’t all paperwork and interviews. Casey’s students snorkeled through patch reef and mangrove ecosystems along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. “The mangroves and the sea grass and the corals and the open ocean and the connection between those things — what better way to learn about it than to actually be in it?” asked Casey.

For 10 days, Casey’s students shared space at the Tropical Research Education Center in Ambergris Caye with W&L classmates studying coral reefs with W&L geology professor Lisa Greer.  “We spent every day on the same boat, from basically eight in the morning until three in the afternoon, snorkeling the same sites,” said Casey

This cross-pollination of disciplines can help students gain a broader understanding of all the forces at play. “As a social scientist who firmly believes in doing interdisciplinary work, it’s paramount to know something about the eco-system that you’re studying,” said Casey. “I think the students learned a lot informally from the students in the other class.”

This summer, juniors Libby Cloos of Covington, La., and Katie D’Innocenzo of Andover, Mass., are analyzing the information that Casey’s class collected during the Belize trip as well as data collected during his research trips to other Caribbean countries. This data includes the results of in-person surveys as well as details about Caribbean tourism.

The two students also reviewed literature about the willingness of travelers to pay to preserve marine environments. “I’ve been doing a lot of database searches so I’m really familiar with econ lit, econ papers, JSTOR and how to skim quickly a 37-page econ paper,” said D’Innocenzo, a Robert E. Lee Research Scholar. “I summarize the papers, pull out the important aspects, and send the summaries to Professor Casey.”

D’Innocenzo and Cloos, who is an intern with W&L’s Chesapeake Bay Program, did not join Casey’s class in Belize because they spent their spring term studying sustainable economic development in Amazonas, Brazil, with W&L economics professor James Kahn. They plan to join Casey when he returns to Belize for the 2013 spring term.

Casey has been studying the economic value of marine ecosystems since 2003, when he taught a class about marine resource economics. By 2006 he had taken a group of students to Mexico, where they conducted their first survey. “Since 2006 we’ve gathered data from Mexico, Belize, Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, and have an ongoing relationship with the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the University of the West Indies-Cave Hill,” said Casey.

In 2010, Casey published a study indicating that tourists to Mexico would be willing to pay up to $55 per visit for coral reef protection (www.wlu.edu/x49300.xml). “We actually try to design most of our studies with an emphasis on answering some type of policy question,” said Casey.

He plans to use the information gathered in Belize to attract funding for a more in-depth round of data collection, one that would be done over a term of six months instead of four weeks. “I’m trying to find a forum through which we can start to discuss these initial results, either in Belize or Washington, and then find funding to go out and gather 500 to 1,000 observations,” said Casey. Cloos and D’Innocenzo spent one week this summer looking for sources of funding for the proposed project.

Analyzing survey data, reviewing journal articles and looking for funding may not be as glamorous as snorkeling off the coast of Belize, but the two summer scholars have learned the ins and outs of graduate-level research while expanding their overall understanding of economics.

“I think what’s been most beneficial has been seeing all the concepts that we learned in the classroom applied to real-world data, like the different valuation methods and survey methods that we learned, and seeing how they’re actually implemented,” said Cloos.

For more information about Casey’s spring term students and their adventures in Belize, visit their blog at http://springterm.blogs.wlu.edu/classes/economics-of-tropical-coastal-seascapes.

— by Amy Balfour ’89, ’93L

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
(540) 458-8459