North Queensland tourism in the spotlight amid concerns about the impact of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

Demand for tours around the Great Barrier Reef is as high as it’s ever been despite suggestions the tourism industry will struggle as coral bleaching takes its toll on the reef, according to one tour group operator.

Michael Healy is the group director of sales and marketing for Quicksilver, a reef tour operator that operates in the region. He says business hasn’t been this good in over a decade.

“We ask as many people as we can about the reef, about their journey out there and we’re yet to hear any negative comments about the deterioration of the reef,” he told SmartCompany.

“We haven’t seen an impact [on numbers] at this stage,” Healy says.

However, in recent weeks, the fate of tourism in the region has received more attention from politicians in Canberra, following reports about the widespread bleaching that is occurring across parts of the reef.

Federal opposition leader Bill Shorten has announced $500 million dollars will go towards saving the reef should the Labor Party be elected on July 2.

On top of that, on Tuesday Shorten said $1 billion of the Coalition’s $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund would be reserved for tourism under a Labor government.

The opposition leader said “a lack of high-quality facilities will limit Australia’s ability to capture and grow our share of the booming Asian travel market unless we invest today”.

While Shorten didn’t specify what the money would be used for, the independent Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund was set up to provide funding for regional infrastructure and long-term projects that might otherwise not be built.

Healy says not limiting the money available to those seeking to build roads and transport infrastructure, but also making it available to tourism operators “makes sense”.

“Using that money is not something we have looked into, but obviously that would help expand our infrastructure,” he says.

Negative media a self-fulfilling prophecy

Healy also sits on the board of Tourism Events Queensland and says the region is trying to fight back against perceptions the whole reef is bleached.

“The worldwide media are grabbing the soundbite and moving on,” he says.

Doug Baird, the environment and compliance manager at Quicksilver, says the media are treating the coral bleaching up near Cape York, where 35% of corals a bleaches, as indicative of the rest of the reef.

Agincourt Reef, which is one of the most popular reefs on the coast, is accessed through Cairns and Port Douglas, where the bleaching isn’t as bad, Baird says.

“This summer was the perfect storm,” Baird says. “We had el Niño, very high sea surface temperature, no cyclonic activity to cool down the surface, very little rain and cloud cover.”

“We’re seeing corals recover now, and we’d hope next summer isn’t as bad as the one we’ve just seen,” he says.

However, one expert says there is “no doubt” bleaching will affect local communities if it continues.

“We have close to a million international visitors each year [to Cairns alone], and we know most international visitors come for world heritage qualities like the reef,” says Allison Anderson, a tourism expert at the Central Queensland University.

Anderson says reef loss and bleaching has the potential to affect “word-of-mouth, reviews and the desire to return” and fewer numbers of tourists will flock to the Sunshine State’s far north if the reef is damaged.

“We don’t conclusively know what the impact will be. We’re doing research, but there’s no doubt it will impact the tourist experience,” she says.

North Queensland needs to bring more to the table

However, Anderson says the coral bleaching serves as a warning that tourism in Northern Queensland needs to “diversify” to ensure future bleaching events don’t bring down the region’s economy with it.

She believes Northern Queensland is too dependent on the Great Barrier Reef to bring in visitors.

“There’s a temptation in the tropics to try and rely on your natural environment to draw in visitors,” she says.

In 2013, Deloitte estimated that environment, including the reef, brought in $5.2 billion worth of tourist dollars to the region each year, and directly contributed to the equivalent of nearly 65,000 jobs in that sector.

However, Anderson tells SmartCompany the Sunshine State has more to offer.

“We’ve got the Daintree, which has some of the oldest continuous vegetation in the world and we’ve got the Atherton tablelands, but we can sell more than that,” she says.

“The climate is really favourable – I’m standing in Cairns in a sleeveless dress on the first day of winter.”

“We could do a lot of things to attract visitors up here by selling the tropical lifestyle,” she says.

This could involve establishing other sorts of attractions, such as the Cairns Aquarium, which is currently under construction.

“I mean if you get entertainment spaces, more businesses, a water park then all of a sudden there’s a lot more to come up for,” Anderson says.

Anderson hopes federal government funding will be available to help deepen the North Queensland tourism industry beyond promotion of the reef.

“If funding goes into reef investment, propping up reef operators and no-one else, that wouldn’t help a huge amount,” she says.

“However if they were talking about trying to get new attractions, we need to start looking into what we can do.”

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