From Kangaroo Island to the Great Barrier Reef, the paradox that is luxury ecotourism



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The Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island. Each new luxury ecotourism development becomes a precedent to allow future incursions.
Southern Ocean Lodge/AAP

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, University of South Australia

Kangaroo Island, less than 130 kilometres from Adelaide, is one of Australia’s ecological jewels. Tourism Australia describes it as a “pristine wilderness”, with cliffs, beaches, wetlands and dense bushland offering protection to native animals such as penguins, sea lions, pelicans, koalas and, of course, kangaroos.

Kangaroo Island.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

It is a place “too good to spoil”.

Many who agree fear that new developments will do exactly that. With the state government’s approval, a tourism company wants to build two luxury tourist villages at unspoilt locations on the island’s west coast, within the protected area of the Flinders Chase National Park, the state’s second-oldest national park.

Park volunteers have gone on strike in opposition. Hundreds have rallied before South Australia’s parliament in support of “public parks, not private playgrounds”.

The issue is not unique to Kangaroo Island. Around Australia, and the world, national parks are under threat from the curious paradox of luxury tourism, which demands development in protected wilderness areas to cater for those who want to enjoy the natural environment without any interruption of their lifestyle.




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Death by a thousand cuts

My research has involved studying past development controversies on Kangaroo Island. One is Southern Ocean Lodge, a six-star ecolodge near Flinders Chase developed in the mid-2000s. Another is the Kangaroo Island Surf Music Festival, held in 2011 at Vivonne Bay, on the island’s south coast.

Southern Ocean Lodge, Kangaroo Island, South Australia.
Southern Ocean Lodge/AAP

Both cases illuminate the process by which parks authorities are pressured to support commercial tourism enterprises in their protected areas.

Park authorities never have enough funding to pay for conservation. Tourism authorities motivated by growth indicators seek to attract high-yield tourists. Luxury ecotourism is a lucrative niche. As budgets for the environment are cut, the financial incentives dangled by tourism authorities become irresistible.

It is presented as a win-win collaboration. Any single venture can be justified on the grounds that the immediate benefits outweigh the costs. But each development becomes a precedent to allow future incursions, resulting in “death by a thousand cuts”.

Elsewhere in Australia

South Australian authorities are hardly alone in accepting this faustian bargain.

In Tasmania, the federal and state governments are backing plans for a tourism development on an island in the middle of Lake Malbena in the central highlands. The lake is within the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

The plan reportedly involves building three luxury huts and a helipad so six people at a time can fly in for three-night getaways at a cost of about A$4,500 each.




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In Queensland, the state government has plans to offer 60-year leases to commercial tourism operators in three national parks (the Whitsunday Islands National Park, the Great Sandy National Park and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park). The operators will be allowed to build “eco-lodges” and offer “commercial experiences”.

An insight into what those experiences might involve is provided by The Weekend Australian Magazine, (whose readers have an average income of A$116,495).

The article “Walk this way: adventures in the great outdoors” (published 2-3 March 2019) talks of “fully supported walking experiences” with “luxury accommodations” and “premium food and wines” costing thousands of dollars, and in some cases using helicopters to access remote park sites.

Australian Walking Company

One company keen to snare the Queensland leases is the developer of the Kangaroo Island luxury tourism plan, Australian Walking Company. A director and significant shareholder in the company is Brett Godfrey, the former chief executive of Virgin Australia who is now chairman of Tourism Queensland.

All that glitters: Brett Godfrey strikes a pose to promote Virgin’s Australian operation in 2007.
Virgin Australia

Godfrey has addressed his potential conflict of interest by taking advice from the office of the Queensland Integrity Commissioner.

Nonetheless, his dual interests give an insight into the problematic nature of governments and tourism bureaucracies supporting luxury ecotourism developments in conservation areas; particularly when (as former Queensland minister for national parks Steve Dickson said in 2013), they are “looking to make money”.

Private versus public interest

The business strategy of unlocking national parks for luxury eco-tourism development risks undermining the very point of creating such parks in the first place. It pits the private interests of the wealthy against the public interest in environmental and local benefits.

It places no value on the conservation work of “friends of parks” groups, which support these parks primarily as places for conservation and secondly as publicly funded places to enjoy, learn about and connect to nature.

Catering to the luxury eco-tourist is at odds with the “wild” and undeveloped nature that conservationists and local park lovers want. You can’t get away from it all and take it all with you.

Advocates can argue that luxury eco-tourism is more sustainable because it offers high economic yield with fewer numbers. But take that argument to its logical extreme and we’ll end up with situations like that in Indonesia.

Komodo lessons

The governor of the province that includes Komodo National Park, the island home of komodo dragons, wants to increase the park’s entrance fee by 5,000%, from about US$10 to US$500. It would certainly reduce tourist numbers, but also effectively make the park off-limits to most Indonesians.

The governor, Victor Laidkodat, is apparently fine with that. “This is a rare place, only for people with money,” he has reportedly said. “Those who don’t have enough money shouldn’t come because this place is for extraordinary people.”




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This is certainly not what we want for our own national parks, turning them into private playgrounds for the privileged few.

This year is the centenary of Kangaroo Island’s Flinders Chase National Park. It’s a good time to look back and appreciate the vision that led to its establishment in 1919, and to look critically at what our vision is for the next 100 years.The Conversation

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To reduce fire risk and meet climate targets, over 300 scientists call for stronger land clearing laws



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Without significant tree cover, dry and dusty landscapes can result.
Don Driscoll, Author provided

Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, University of Newcastle; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, CQUniversity Australia

Australia’s high rates of forest loss and weakening land clearing laws are increasing bushfire risk, and undermining our ability to meet national targets aimed at curbing climate change.

This dire situation is why we are among the more than 300 scientists and practitioners who have signed a declaration calling for governments to restore, or better strengthen regulations to protect native vegetation.




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Land clearing laws have been contentious in several states for years. New South Wales relaxed its land clearing controls in 2017, triggering concerns over irreversible environmental damage. Although it is too early to know the impact of those changes, a recent analysis found that land clearing has increased sharply in some areas since the laws changed.

The Queensland Labor government’s 2018 strengthening of land clearing laws came after years of systematic weakening of these protections. Yet the issue has remained politically divisive. While discussing a federal inquiry into the impact of these policies on farmers, federal agriculture minister David Littleproud suggested that the strenthening of regulations may have worsened Queensland’s December bushfires.

We argue such an assertion is at odds with scientific evidence. And, while the conservation issues associated with widespread land clearing are generally well understood by the public, the consequences for farmers and fire risks are much less so.

Tree loss can increase fire risk

During December’s heatwave in northern Queensland, some regions were at “catastrophic” bushfire risk for the first time since ratings began. Even normally wet rainforests, such as at Eungella National Park inland from Mackay, sustained burns in some areas during “unprecedented” fire conditions.

There is no evidence to support the suggestion that 2018’s land clearing law changes contributed to the fires. No changes were made to how vegetation can be managed to reduce fire risk. This is governed under separate laws, which remained unaltered.

In fact, shortly after the fires, Queensland’s land clearing figures were released. They showed that in the three years to June 2018, an area equivalent to roughly 570,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds (1,138,000 hectares) of bushland was cleared, including 284,000 hectares of remnant (old-growth) ecosystems.

Tree clearing can worsen fire risk in several ways. It can affect the regional climate. In parts of eastern Australia, tree cover reductions are estimated to have increased summer surface temperatures by up to 2℃ and southwest Western Australia by 0.4–0.8℃, reduced rainfall in southeast Australia, and made droughts hotter and longer.

Removing forest vegetation depletes soil moisture. Large, intact areas of forest typically have cooler, wetter microclimates buffered from extreme temperatures. Over time, some forest types can even become fire-resistant, but smaller patches of trees are typically drier and more flammable.

Trees also form a natural windbreak that can slow the spread of bushfires. An analysis of the 2005 Wangary fire in South Australia found that fires spread most rapidly through paddocks, rather than through areas lined with native trees.

Trends from 1978 to 2017 in the annual (July to June) sum of the daily Forest Fire Danger Index, an indicator of the severity of fire weather conditions. Positive trends, shown in the yellow to red colours, indicate increasing length and intensity of the fire weather season. Areas where there are sparse data coverage, such as central parts of Western Australia, are faded.
CSIRO/Bureau of Meteorology/State of the Climate 2018

Finally, Australia’s increasing risk of bushfire and worsening drought are driven by global climate change, to which land clearing is a major contributor.

Farmers on the frontline of environmental risk

Extensive tree clearing also leads to problems for farmers, including rising salinity, reduced water quality, and soil erosion. Governments and rural communities spend significant money and labour redressing the aftermath of excessive clearing.

Sensible regulation of native vegetation removal does not restrict existing agriculture, but rather seeks to support sustainable production. Retained trees can help deal with many environmental risks that hamper agricultural productivity, including animal health, long-term pasture productivity, risks to the water cycle, pest control, and human well-being.

Rampant tree clearing is undoing climate policy too. Much of the federal government’s A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund has gone towards tree planting. But it would take almost this entire sum just to replace the trees cleared in Queensland since 2012.




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In 2019, Australians might reasonably expect that our relatively wealthy and well-educated country has moved beyond a frontier-style reliance on continued deforestation, and we would do well to better acknowledge and learn lessons from Indigenous Australians with respect to their land management practices.

Yet the periodic weakening of land clearing laws in many parts of Australia has accelerated the problem. The negative impacts on industry, society and wildlife are numerous and well established. They should not be ignored.The Conversation

Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Newcastle; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography, CQUniversity Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.