National parks are created to preserve our natural capital for the future, but that shouldn’t preclude us from enjoying them now. However, some conservation groups believe national parks should be virtually off-limits to all but hard-core bushwalking enthusiasts. This attitude effectively excludes the vast majority of the population who want to experience the great outdoors, but don’t have the desire or the wherewithal to trek or camp.
Tourism & Transport Forum (TTF) has been promoting a partnership between industry and national parks agencies around the nation since signing a Sustainable Tourism Protocol with the Australian Conservation Foundation in August 2004. However, this remains a contentious subject involving complex legal and political issues and requiring a legislative framework that puts conservation first and foremost, without imposing unnecessary risk or regulatory burdens on investors.
The impetus for the partnerships is to establish tourism operations with minimal impact on the environment that will pay for themselves, as well as help to cover the cost of park management, including conservation and visitor infrastructure. Eco-friendly accommodation can help to encourage people to visit areas they previously would not have considered - and with natural attractions the key drawcard, there is an inherent imperative that those attractions be maintained.
Around 10 percent of Australia is gazetted as national parks and protected areas, which is a positive move to conserve significant parts of our landscape. While TTF supports this protection in principle, it is important the legislation not only allows but also facilitates visitation. In most parts of Australia, this will require a fundamental overhaul of the regulations governing the management of parks to allow for more realistic pricing that reflects the true cost of conservation and infrastructure and to control the environmental impact by rationing demand.
There must also be provision to allow private sector leasehold agreements, including true public-private partnerships which share the environmental and commercial risks.
TTF firmly believes that conservation and tourism are not mutually exclusive and that each can leverage off the other. For example, tourists will pay a premium to stay at an eco-lodge in a pristine national park location, with an agreed percentage of revenues to be reinvested in park management and infrastructure. Ideally, any development in national parks would be sustainable from both a financial and an environmental perspective, but that will need a regulatory overhaul which recognises that conservation and sustainable tourism can not only co-exist, they can in fact be complementary.
The State with the greenest reputation has actively incorporated tourism into legislation governing national parks, state reserves and recreation areas. Tasmania was the birthplace of the world’s first green political party, the United Tasmania Group, which was formed in 1972 to campaign against the flooding of Lake Pedder. It was also the first state to elect a green MP - Norm Sanders won the seat of Denison in the Tasmanian Parliament in a 1980 by-election, after spearheading opposition to the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam. When he left Parliament two years later, his seat went to the current leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Bob Brown. Remarkably, of the 25 sitting members of Tasmania’s lower house, four are Greens MPs.
However, it seems that tourism has been included in the island state’s national parks legislation because of, rather than despite, Tasmania’s green bent. Tasmania’s national parks legislation includes this clause: "to encourage and provide for tourism, recreational use and enjoyment consistent with the conservation of the national park’s natural and cultural values". This clearly states that tourism is acceptable, as long as it is in keeping with the park’s original raison d’être.
Thousands of people flock to Tasmania every year to tackle some of the world’s great walks, happily paying for the privilege. The fee for the Overland Track is $160 per person and numbers are limited, helping to minimise the impact, with all revenues directed toward the environmental protection and long-term management of the track and its facilities. The Bay of Fires walk also rations use through price and displays environmental sensitivity, using demountable, seasonal structures, while abiding by the mantra: leave only footprints and take only photographs. It’s through this ethos that tourism has been encouraged in Tasmanian national parks.
In New South Wales, the State Government agreed in principle last December to the recommendations made by a Tourism and National Parks Taskforce, which was convened by the Environment and Tourism Ministers and included representatives from the Department of Environment and Climate Change, Department of Lands, Forests NSW, Tourism NSW, TTF and two leading conservationists. The Taskforce called for an overhaul of parks laws to bring them more into line with the Tasmanian legislation and allow environmentally sensitive and sustainable tourism development in and around national parks.
While some green groups condemned the agreement out of hand, accusing the New South Wales Government of selling out to big tourism, the strategy merely reflects the growing cost of park management and the need to invest in basic tourist infrastructure to encourage visitation. Far from allowing hotels, swimming pools and golf courses to be constructed in sensitive areas, the Taskforce recommendations are for appropriate structures which tread lightly, allowing people to enjoy the natural surroundings while making a minimal impact on the environment. Again, the ethos is one of conservation and environmental awareness, underwritten by the reality that the natural assets are the primary attraction and that impinging on them would reduce a location’s desirability as a tourism destination.
Put simply, inappropriate development in national parks is in no-one’s interest. What is in everyone’s interest is a strong legislative framework which takes account of the need to balance ongoing investment in conservation and park management with the need for fundamental tourism infrastructure to encourage visitation to help cover those burgeoning costs. This will allow hikers and campers to continue to enjoy the solitude they crave, while others will be able to pay to experience the great Australian bush without foregoing some basic creature comforts.