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Is nature-based tourism development really what our national parks need?

It’s easy to find examples of good development in national parks - Cradle Mountain Lodge, for example - and examples of where it hasn’t worked. Michael Dawes

Is nature-based tourism development really what our national parks need?

You’d be hard pushed to find someone who doesn’t love national parks, either as visitors or as reasonably-minded bystanders. But can those parks be loved to death? And, if so, who should step in to help when passions are inflamed?

For every positive argument as to the way forward for national parks there is, it seems, a convincing counter-argument – a situation we’ve seen repeated time and again in recent years.

In trying to find a way through the cacophony, it’s worth remembering that, even though they are “national” parks, most of these areas are state and territory run, apart from six that come under Commonwealth jurisdiction (Kakadu, Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Booderee, Norfolk Island, Christmas Island and Pulu Keeling). So what happens if we focus in on just one state?

The Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission (VCEC) recently released its report on the state’s tourism industry, and it recommended tourism development in national parks.

In so doing, it has shone a spotlight on what some sectors consider to be the best way to fund and manage national parks.

National park management is complicated, because they’re mostly not national; Kata Tjuta is one of the few that is. Sjoerd van Oosten

The Victorian State Government accepted all of the VCEC’s tourism development recommendations, including that private sector investment and business be allowed to:

Propose sensible and sensitive developments in national parks provided they complement environmental, heritage and other values and generate a net public benefit.

We learned from the press release accompanying the recommendations that:

The Victorian Coalition Government will reform current policy to allow appropriate environmentally sensitive, private sector tourism investment in national parks.

Treasurer Kim Wells, in the same release, added that:

If we hope to attract more international visitors to Victoria, particularly from markets such as China, we must meet the rapidly growing demand for nature-based tourism.

The direction announced has been supported by tourism advocacy groups such as the Victorian Tourism Industry Council and the Tourism and Transport Forum. They argue that this brings Victoria into line with other states and territories (except ACT).

It’s good for conservation as well as business, they say, because it lets those best at running commercial enterprises focus on that, while the national park agencies can return to managing the conservation elements.

But organisations such as the Victorian National Parks Association and some news bloggers present an opposing perspective. They are concerned about the conflicting values of conservation and commercialism.

Opponents of development may look to the Great Barrier Reef National Park. The potential environmental impact of oil and gas exploration and associated port development on or near the reef prompted a recent dressing down from UNESCO

The Great Barrier Reef is a hotspot for disputes over how we should develop national parks. dsopfe/Flickr

But the more slow-burning impacts of tourism and recreation tend to be less newsworthy. And, if the news is good, with commercial business contributing positively to the environment, it is even less likely to be reported in the mainstream media.

Tourism Effects

It is often argued that tourism provides a potentially benign means to contribute to the running of our parks. But the current income from many national park tourism licenses tends to contribute to consolidated revenue and not directly to the national park management agencies.

The notion of “Limits of Acceptable Change” has been adopted by many national park agencies around the world, as they accept that change occurs, regardless of the management of the site.

Again, we have to consider who deems what is “acceptable” in terms of such change, and also accept that these parameters will also change.

Another issue pertaining to tourism development in national parks is the fact that examples can be cited to support all sides of the argument, such as:

  • the Cradle Mountain Lodges in Tasmania (high environmental value and successful from a business, experiential and environmental perspective)
  • the Mount Buffalo Chalet in Victoria (of high heritage value, yet unsuccessful in terms of business viability)
  • Uluru in the Northern Territory (of high indigenous and environmental value, yet still experiencing tourists climbing all over a sacred site).

Ultimately, each type of development or activity in a national park needs to be assessed on its own merits as each situation is different – the tourist and recreational uses (and needs) are different, the visitor profile is different, the surrounding community is different, the natural environment is different and the business environment is different.

The big issue here is who can be trusted to make these decisions?

There is particular concern in Victoria over what will be deemed “sensible and sensitive” development. It appears that the final decision will rest with the state Environment Minister of the day.