Kathy Xu first started her ecotourism project, The Dorsal Effect, to help sharks at risk of overfishing. But by hiring fishermen to lead snorkeling trips in the oceans they fish, she also helps locals make money conserving sharks and their ecosystems, instead of just exploiting them.
Sharks are caught primarily for their fins, as shark fins can be sold for hundreds of dollars a pound. Shark fin soup is still considered a delicacy in Hong Kong, China and other countries, though government and nonprofit initiatives have worked to decrease its cultural value. Around 73 million sharks are killed every year for their fins, according to WildAid. The International Union for Conservation of Nature found that nearly a third of open ocean sharks are at risk of extinction, primarily from overfishing.
For many fishermen on the island of Lombok in Indonesia, catching sharks and other marine life is their only way of making a living. Xu said she sympathizes with them, as they are just trying to get by and do not have other options. "When we first went to the fish market, it was really just talking to them and finding what their life was about," Xu told The Huffington Post. Now she tries to offer them an alternative.
When she got her first group of shark tourists together, she said she just approached fishermen and asked if they would like to be paid to take them on a trip. The fishermen not only agreed, but they knew great locations nearby. Her tours in Lombok are just one day long, and take tourists on boat trips to places around the island. Xu and the fishermen also came to agree on conservation practices, like trying to pick up trash and anchor the boats in sand, not on coral.
"Over time I saw that the fishermen were getting happier doing this, and they started taking ownership over the boat trips," Xu told HuffPost.
Xu had some help in creating her sustainable business. She competed for the Singapore International Foundation's Young Social Entrepreneurs program in 2013, which helped her clarify her plans and provided seed funding when she won the final pitch. Our Better World, a Singapore International Foundation initiative, created the video above documenting her conservation efforts once she began the trips to Lombok.
Ecotourism has grown in past years as travelers become more aware of the positive impact they can have on a location just by visiting. Though it is defined by the International Ecotourism Society as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people," it can also be controversial, Xu told HuffPost.
"The environment is in a very vulnerable position now, so just bringing people to any place at all could result in damage," Xu said. "So it's about being careful, about making sure that there are things in place to take care of the places that we go to on the boat trip."
As for what people can do to have a positive impact on their vacation, Xu said, "We are at an age where responsible tourism is and should be a big thing." As much as possible, she said people should "try to find ways to engage in responsible tourism... where you can actually make a difference rather than just having fun on your trip, where you're having fun as well as making a difference."
Read more from The Dorsal Effect founder Kathy Xu here.