Whale shark tourism is the most prominent form of shark-based tourism in the world, with global revenue estimated at US $47.5 million in 2004. Whale shark tourism first started at Ningaloo Reef (Western Australia) in the 1990’s. Today, the Ningaloo whale shark industry is valued between AU$3.2 and 6.2 million.
Whale shark tourism has since developed in other locations, including the Seychelles, Mexico, Belize, Mozambique, Maldives, and the Philippines. It is estimated that 100,000 people participate in whale shark tourism activities worldwide annually, paying up to US $350 for a single encounter.
Whale shark tourism is a lucrative industry. Visitors to Donsol in the Philippines, increased from 800 in 1998 to 7200 in 2005, generating an estimated annual income of US $208,000 in 2005. Whale shark tourism in the Seychelles is currently valued at US $3.08 million. In 2013, whale shark tourism in the South Ari Marine Protected Area (Maldives) brought in a whopping USD $9.4 million.
The biggest challenges facing whale shark tourism include developing site-specific regulations and impact monitoring. If implemented successfully and consistently, such regulations and monitoring may provide a balance between maximizing visitor experience and minimizing the negative impacts on the animals. With the exception of Ningaloo Reef, whale shark tourism sites such as Belize, Mexico and the Philippines remain poorly monitored. Studies suggest this may cause significant behavioural changes in the sharks.