Ecotourism in National Parks: Working Side by Side for People and Parks – National Parks Association of Queensland

Ecotourism in National Parks: Working Side by Side for People and Parks

Author: Chris Thomas

Photography: Tamborine NP, Karin Cox

The recently released Queensland Government’s Towards Tourism 2032 plan aims to double the state’s tourism overnight expenditure to more than $44 billion annually by the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games. “So where are all these extra tourists going to go” asks NPAQ CEO Chris Thomas.

The answer, of course, lies in careful consideration of new ventures, situating them in places close enough to highlight the beauty of Queensland’s protected areas while still minimising the threats they face. Doing that successfully will require governments, conservationists and ecotourism ventures to work together to negotiate outcomes for the good of the state’s protected areas.

A $23-billion-a-year industry

Tourism in Queensland is a $23 billion-a-year industry that sustains 174,000 Queensland jobs across 60,000 businesses. Add to this that four out of five Queenslanders currently occupy South East Queensland and that the region’s population is expected to swell to 4.5 million by 2032, and you can see the immediate challenges for housing, transport, health services and education – but also for outdoor recreation and protected areas.

Few sectors of the community do not benefit from the additional funds tourism, whether local or international, adds to the state’s coffers. Nature-based tourism, especially, is a significant growth sector with a high return on State investment. Historically and logically, ecotourism has centred on Queensland’s national parks and protected areas. On one level, our iconic parks boast glorious scenery and ancient landscapes with outstanding visitor appeal, but on another, they preserve outstanding natural and cultural values, many found nowhere else. As safe havens for endangered species and repositories of cultural knowledge, they can be susceptible to visitor impact. While the balance of visitation versus conservation is often right, in some cases, increased visitation can go very wrong.

Sustainable, well-managed facilities in national parks naturally expand the range of people who connect with Queensland’s environment, leading to broader community support for national parks, expansion of the protected area estate, and a deeper appreciation of conservation values. When appropriately managed, visitation represents a shared benefit to regional communities, the ecotourism industry and conservation funding, so working together is key. Clearly, the demand for nature-based tourism and recreation already exists. Now, the Government’s attention needs to pivot to the supply side of nature-based tourism and recreation to minimise impact. Significant investment in interpretative or culture centre facilities, such as the recently approved reopening of Eurong Information Centre on K’gari, upgraded amenities that prevent “bush toileting” or over-crowding, and many more well-supported park rangers, are needed to ensure higher visitation does not risk impacting protected areas.

We need more parks

The Government’s commitment to doubling Queensland’s protected area estate to 30 million hectares (17% of the state’s area) by 2030 presents part of the solution. Having more protected areas will simultaneously increase sanctuaries for wildlife, create green corridors between existing protected areas, expand the diversity of habitats protected, and add more places for residents and tourists to visit, reducing the effects of crowding.

Another fix is locating new ecotourism developments close to, but outside of, national parks – a position often referred to as “the adjacency principle”. Adjacency is an important part of NPAQ’s Ecotourism policy as it avoids the actual (or perceived) impacts on park values and public access/ownership while still promoting conservation values. In many cases, ecotourism proponents are better served by basing their businesses on land outside national parks, if only to enable them to offer novel activities and avoid protracted debate about privatisation. Historically, some private developments within national parks have focused more on commercial benefit, guest convenience, or having a scenic backdrop for mainstream recreation (such as a golf course) than on protecting and presenting national park values. Concerns about privatisation have already scuppered proposed ecotourism facilities within parks, such as the recently withdrawn Cooloola Eco Cabin plan within Great Sandy National Park.

The adjacency principle

Fortunately, the State Government has been listening to the debate. A priority action in its Ecotourism Plan for Queensland’s Protected Areas is facilitating new ecotourism projects on land next to national parks or revitalising already developed or degraded land. Adjacency prevents private ecotourism developments from placing undue demands on limited park management resources, allowing rangers to focus on their core biodiversity conservation and management responsibilities. Additionally, it signals to the tourism sector that protected areas shouldn’t be their sole focus for development and that private or local government-owned land can deliver better, more sustainable prospects.

A focus on adjacency is also evident in the City of Gold Coast’s Nature-based Tourism Plan for activating nature-based tourism and recreation in the state’s south. The plan presents an immediate solution to the emerging nature-based tourism and recreation demand on the Gold Coast. It helps spread the load, reducing the pressure on surrounding national parks such as Lamington, Springbrook and Tamborine.

Consistently adopting “the adjacency principle” when facilitating ecotourism development proposals in Queensland could be the critical success factor in enticing the wider world to appreciate Queensland’s natural beauty during the 2032 Olympics and Paralympics.

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