Students head to Tonga for whale tourism research | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Students head to Tonga for whale tourism research

A group of University of the Sunshine Coast students will be at the forefront of international research into humpback whale tourism when they travel to Tonga for a study tour in late July.

The six Tourism, Psychology and Human Geography students are taking part in a cross-disciplinary research project that will compare Queensland’s emerging Swim With Humpback Whales (SWW) tourism with the Pacific nation’s more established industry.

USC International Relations Projects Manager Dr Sheila Peake said the research aimed to explore SWW tourism from multiple angles, with a view to strengthening the industry in both countries.

"In 2014 tour operators in Queensland were given permits to offer swimming with humpback whales for the first time. Mooloolaba and Hervey Bay are currently the only two locations in Australia where you can experience this," Dr Peake said.

"In Tonga they’ve been swimming with humpback whales for more than 20 years and have a wealth of experience in operating these types of tours.

“So this research is a comparative study between a new operation and long-term one – looking at the tourism dynamics, conservation outcomes and operational aspects of tours in order to determine best practice and share information across international borders.”

The study will also examine the communication of conservation on whale tours, cultural impacts of SWW tourism and the psychology behind human encounters with whales.

Students and academics have prepared for the trip with the support of Sunshine Coast dive operator Sunreef Mooloolaba, which launched Australia’s first SWW tours last year.

Humpback whale migration season began in early July, and Sunreef has reserved two seats on each of its tours for researchers and students to collect data for the Australian side of the project.

Lecturer in Tourism, Leisure and Events Dr Vikki Schaffer said the upcoming trip to Tonga would offer USC students a rare opportunity to take part in groundbreaking international research that would help strengthen the Sunshine Coast’s growing SWW industry and would inform whale and wildlife tourism practices around the world.

"The research is looking into social and economic impacts, tourist demographics and the effects of SWW tourism on a community," Dr Schaffer said. “Students will be interacting with a range of stakeholders, including tourists, business, tourism operators and governing bodies, and seeing how those stakeholders interact.

"In the process they will gain insights into our industry that will prove invaluable as they move forward in their careers as tourism professionals."

Tourism students Jemma Baker and Keisha Semchyshyn said they were excited to have an opportunity to gain hands-on experience that would better inform their studies and prepare them for graduate opportunities in the field.

The Tongan research trip will be funded by a grant from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s New Colombo Plan, along with support from Gowings Humpback Whale Trust and Quest Tours.

— Jarna Baudinette

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