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Coral reefs and coastal tourism in Hawaii

An Author Correction to this article was published on 14 March 2023

This article has been updated


Coral reefs are popular for their vibrant biodiversity. By combining web-scraped Instagram data from tourists and high-resolution live coral cover maps in Hawaii, we find that, regionally, coral reefs both attract and suffer from coastal tourism. Higher live coral cover attracts reef visitors, but that visitation contributes to subsequent reef degradation. Such feedback loops threaten the highest quality reefs, highlighting both their economic value and the need for effective conservation management.

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Fig. 1: The relative distributions and drivers of on-reef and overall coastal visitation across the main Hawaiian Islands.
Fig. 2: The change in live coral cover with increasing distance from shore between more and less popular sites in Hawaii for on-reef and overall coastal visitation.

Data availability

The live coral cover data are available in the Zenodo repository ( The human activity, site accessibility and water conditions data are available through the Ocean Tipping Points project ( and the Hawaii Statewide GIS Program ( Meta reached out to the authors after publication and asked that the original Instagram dataset uploaded in the accompanying Zenodo repository be removed from public access to limit user data exposure and its risk of misuse.

Code availability

Meta reached out to the authors after publication and asked that the original web-scraping script uploaded in the accompanying Zenodo repository be removed from public access to limit user data exposure and its risk of misuse.

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We thank T. Bearpark, F. Guo, M. Donovan, A. Friedlander, K. Oleson, J. Lecky and J. Abraham for input that informed the study’s conception, design and analyses; T. W. Shawa for help with geospatial modeling; T. Bearpark, A. M. Zuranski, J. A. G. Torres, B. J. Arnold and N. Ondrikova for input on machine learning models; Z. Volenec for the base Selenium WebDriver Python code; the Ocean Tipping Points project and the Hawaii Statewide GIS Program for all site accessibility, human activity and water condition data; and the High Meadows Foundation and Princeton University for ongoing support of this work. Airborne mapping was funded by the Lenfest Ocean Program of The Pew Charitable Trust.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



B.L. conceived this study and wrote the first draft; G.P.A. provided the live coral cover data; B.L. and Y.Z. carried out the analyses with input from G.P.A. and D.S.W.; B.L., Y.Z., D.S.W. and G.P.A. contributed to all subsequent iterations of the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Bing Lin or David S. Wilcove.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature Sustainability thanks Robert Richmond and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Instagram and Hawaii Tourism Authority visitation validation (2018–2021).

Aggregated Instagram visitation data plotted against yearly daily censuses at the county level conducted by the Hawaii Tourism Authority from 2018 to 2021. The line shows the regression point estimate between variables and the shaded area depicts 95% confidence intervals.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Live coral cover and overall visitation at the 20 most-visited sites in Hawaii.

Overall visitation at the top 20 most-visited sites in the main Hawaiian islands plotted against absolute median live coral cover at each of these sites. The name, location and visitation rank of the top 10 most-visited sites are labeled.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Relationship between overall and on-reef visitation in Hawaii.

The relationship between on-reef and overall visitation across 333 bays and beaches in the main Hawaiian islands. The line depicts the regression point estimate between variables and the shaded region represents 95% confidence intervals.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Littoral buffer construction schematic.

A schematic of how each littoral buffer was constructed in ArcGIS Pro 3.0 for various calculations of benthic composition, human activity, and water conditions at each coastal site.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Histograms of on-reef and overall visitation across coastal sites in Hawaii.

Histograms depicting the discontinuous distribution between high- and low-visitation sites for both overall visitation (top figures) and on-reef visitation (bottom figures) across both the most-visited sites (n = 100) and all sites (n = 333).

Extended Data Table. 1 Most-visited Hawaiian bays and beaches by Instagram posts
Extended Data Table. 2 Most-visited Hawaiian bays and beaches by kernel visitation densities
Extended Data Table. 3 All variables tested for random forest model selection

Supplementary information

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Lin, B., Zeng, Y., Asner, G.P. et al. Coral reefs and coastal tourism in Hawaii. Nat Sustain 6, 254–258 (2023).

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