Closing Uluru to climbers is better for tourism in the long run



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The Anangu people actually offer visitors a range of eco-cultural tourism activities that focus on sharing Indigenous culture, knowledge and traditions.
Leo Li/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Michelle Whitford, Griffith University and Susanne Becken, Griffith University

Closing Uluru to climbers empowers Indigenous people to teach visitors about their culture on their own terms, which is more sustainable for tourism in the long run.

Uluru is a drawcard for international and domestic tourists, and is visited by over 250,000 people per year. A substantial number of these choose to climb the rock. On busy days, the number can be in the hundreds. This is despite being asked by the traditional owners, the Anangu people, to respect their wishes, culture and law and not climb Uluru.

The Anangu people actually offer visitors a range of eco-cultural tourism activities that focus on sharing Indigenous culture, knowledge and traditions, which don’t involve planting feet on a sacred place. These activities including nature walks, painting workshops, bush yarns and bush food experiences.

This decision to close the rock to climbers comes after many years of conceding rights back to the Anangu, and is possibly one of the few times where Indigenous values have truly been prioritised over other interests.

Giving power back to Uluru’s traditional owners

The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, declared in 1950, was handed back to the Anangu on October 26, 1985. While the agreement required the park to be leased to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Services under a co-management arrangement, the handover was a symbolic high point for land rights.

In practice, however, aspects of the park’s operations were contrary to the traditional owners’ approach to conservation and management. For instance, park management models stated the need to place:

… emphasis on developing acceptable patterns of use of the physical environment and not on recognition of social and spiritual values of land to Indigenous people.

In 2010, the park’s management plan proposed to close the rock if the proportion of visitors who wished to climb Uluru was below 20%. An independent analysis of track counter data and visitor statistics undertaken by the Griffith Institute for Tourism over a four year period revealed that in almost all circumstances (and even with allowance for track counter inaccuracy) the proportion was under 20%.

Finally on November 1, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management, consisting of eight traditional owners and four government officials, voted unanimously to close Uluru (Ayers Rock) to climbers. The local tourism industry supported the decision.

Indigenous tourism on the rise

Increasingly, visitors around the world are seeking such opportunities to experience various aspects of Indigenous culture. Not surprisingly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are realising the sociocultural and economic opportunities of tourism and have now become an integral part of the Australian tourism industry.

But for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, getting involved in the tourism industry comes with its own set of problems. They have been tasked with juggling their heritage, customs, culture and traditions with government initiatives that prioritise economic over socio-cultural development. For example, as Quandamooka Dreaming “targets big dollars from tourism” in SE Queensland, the traditional owners are successfully balancing their socio-economic aspirations with cultural lores by determining that some sacred sites will remain accessible only to elders and initiated Indigenous Quandamooka people. But other sites will be open to eco-tourists.

However, too often, tourism development is associated with issues of commercialisation, lack of authenticity and exploitation of culture.

Empowering Indigenous Australians

Given the considerable pressure tourism places on local resources and places, the involvement of local communities and different groups within them is now considered critical for achieving sustainable tourism.

A recent report concludes that participation and empowerment of local communities are success factors to managing tourism growth. It’s the local community that looks after the destination, and it can make or break a tourist’s experience. The report finds developing tourism without input from the local people has often led to conflict.

Closing Uluru for climbing should be seen as a shining example of sustainable tourism being a vehicle for the preservation, maintenance and ongoing development of culture, traditions and knowledge.

The ConversationAnd when reconciliation principles are practised not preached, traditional custodians of the land are afforded due respect. This then leads them to share their 60,000 year old knowledge of the management of the land we are privileged to utilise as tourism destinations.

Michelle Whitford, Associate Professor of Indigenous Tourism, Griffith University and Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Galapagos species are threatened by the very tourists who flock to see them



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Life’s not such a beach for Galapagos native species these days.
shacharf/shutterstock

Veronica Toral-Granda, Charles Darwin University and Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University

Native species are particularly vulnerable on islands, because when invaders such as rats arrive, the native species have nowhere else to go and may lack the ability to fend them off.

The main characteristic of an island is its isolation. Whether just off the coast or hundreds of kilometres from the nearest land, they stand on their own. Because of their isolation, islands generally have a unique array of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else. And that makes all islands one of a kind.

However, islands, despite being geographically isolated, are now part of a network. They are globally connected to the outside world by planes, boats and people. Their isolation has been breached, offering a pathway for introduced species to invade.

The Galapagos Islands, 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador, provide a great example. So far, 1,579 introduced species have been documented on the Galapagos Islands, of which 98% arrived with humans, either intentionally or accidentally.

More than 70% of these species have arrived since the 1970s – when Galapagos first became a tourist destination – an average of 27 introduced species per year for the past 40 years.

New arrivals

Introduced species – plants or animals that have been artificially brought to a new location, often by humans – can damage native fauna and flora. They are among the top threats to biodiversity worldwide, and one of the most important threats to oceanic islands. The Convention on Biological Diversity has a dedicated target to help deal with them and their means of arrival. The target states that:

by 2020, invasive alien species and pathways are identified and prioritised, priority species are controlled or eradicated and measures are in place to manage pathways to prevent their introduction and establishment.

The Galapagos Islands are home to giant tortoises, flightless cormorants, and the iconic Darwin’s finches – species that have evolved in isolation and according to the differing characteristics of each of the islands.

However, the Galapagos’ natural attributes have also made these islands a top tourist destination. Ironically enough, this threatens the survival of many of the species that make this place so unique.

Humans on the rise

In 1950 the Galapagos Islands had just 1,346 residents, and no tourists. In 2015 more than 220,000 visitors travelled to the islands. These tourists, along with the 25,000 local residents, need to have most of their food and other goods shipped from mainland Ecuador.

These strengthening links between Galapagos and the mainland have opened up pathways for the arrival and spread of introduced species to the archipelago, and between its various islands.

Major species transport routes into and between the Galapagos Islands.
PLoS ONE
More and more alien species are finding their way to the Galapagos Islands.
PLoS ONE

Plants were the most common type of introduced species, followed by insects. The most common pathway for species introduction unintentionally was as a contaminant on plants. A few vertebrates have also been recorded as stowaways in transport vehicles, including snakes and opossums; whilst others have been deliberately introduced in the last decade (such as Tilapia, dog breeds and goldfishes).

The number, frequency and geographic origin of alien invasion pathways to Galapagos have increased through time. Our research shows a tight relationship between the number of pathways and the ongoing increase in human population in Galapagos, from both residents and tourists.

For instance, the number of flights has increased from 74 flights a week in 2010 to 107 in 2015; the number of airplane passengers has also increased through time with about 40% being tourists, the remainder being Galapagos residents or transient workers.

Global connections between Galapagos and the outside world have also increased, receiving visitors from 93 countries in 2010 to 158 in 2014. In 2015 and 2016, the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency intercepted more than 14,000 banned items, almost 70% of which were brought in by tourists.

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We think it likely that intentional introductions of alien species will decline when biosecurity is strengthened. However, with tourists as known vectors for introduced species and with tourism much the largest and fastest growing sector of the local economy, unintentional introductions to Galapagos will almost certainly increase further.

The ConversationIf islands are to be kept as islands, isolated in the full sense of the word, it is of high priority to manage their invasion pathways. Our research aims to provide technical input to local decision makers, managers and conservation bodies working in Galapagos in order to minimise a further increase on the number of available pathways to Galapagos and the probable likelihood of new arrivals. Our next step is to evaluate how local tourism boats are connecting the once isolated islands within Galapagos, as a way to minimise further spread of harmful introduced species to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Veronica Toral-Granda, PhD candidate, Charles Darwin University and Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rethinking tourism and its contribution to conservation in New Zealand



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The Tongariro Crossing is one of New Zealand’s most popular walks in a national park.
AAP, CC BY-ND

Valentina Dinica, Victoria University of Wellington

New Zealand is one of 36 global hotspots for biodiversity. Its unique wildlife is a major draw card for tourists.

About three million international visitors arrive in New Zealand each year, adding NZ$15 billion to the economy. At least half explore a national park or protected area (PA), but they contribute very little to these conservation lands.

Government policies implemented since 2009 as part of a “conservation economy” vision aimed to stimulate economic growth by opening up business access to national parks.

Contracts have been granted with an expectation that businesses that benefit from New Zealand’s natural capital would bring environmental and infrastructural gains. My research finds no evidence of such improvements. Here I propose how businesses could help to make nature tourism more sustainable.


Read more: Is it too cheap to visit the ‘priceless’ Great Barrier Reef?


Challenge of saving threatened species

The little spotted kiwi is among many endangered bird species that are found only in New Zealand.
Shutterstock, CC BY-ND

Globally, biodiversity is in crisis. Experts agree that the world is undergoing its sixth mass extinction.

In New Zealand, a third of the land area is protected. Many animals and plants are found nowhere else, but 80% of the country’s native bird species are in trouble.

Biodiversity conservation in PAs is funded primarily from the state budget. Historically, the appropriations for the Department of Conservation (DOC) have been too small to tackle the challenge of protecting some 2800 species considered to be endangered, at risk of extinction or vulnerable.

The contribution of tourism to DOC’s budgets has so far been below 9%. This includes concession fees from tourism operators approved to access PAs, user fees for huts and other facilities, donations and sponsorships.

Conservative budgets for protected areas

Funding cuts are reported around the world, particularly under neoliberal or conservative governments. Stagnant or diminishing budgets sometimes occur despite growing visitor numbers and ambitious tourism growth targets.


Read more: Americans think national parks are worth US$92 billion, but we don’t fund them accordingly


The previous New Zealand government aimed to lift the contributions from natural resources to 40% of GDP by 2025. DOC has been asked to prioritise spending on tourism-related operations over biodiversity spending such as pest control and species recovery programmes. This is inconsistent with the agency’s legislative mandate.

New Zealand law does not allow charging entry fees for PAs. Attempts to change that have been met with opposition from recreation groups and some tourism businesses. Tax instruments are generally opposed by the tourism industry.

Regulatory options for sustainable tourism

Concessions and planning are powerful tools for an ecologically sustainable use of PAs. Several regulatory approaches could help reverse biodiversity decline, while enhancing the environmental performance of tourism.

  • Concession contracts could include responsibilities that reflect the latest developments in conservation practice. Such contracts would need to be followed by adequate monitoring and enforcement. This has been used for some time in several countries, including Australia, Canada, Chile, Rwanda, South Africa and the United States. In these countries, concession contracts are also regularly revised to ensure businesses keep apace with environmental innovation, new ecological threats and changing pressures from visitors.

  • Concession applicants could be selected for their environmental track record and the most deserving environmental design of tourism services. Options here are tenders or auctions, which are already used in the countries mentioned above. Other methods should be used in parallel to ensure that small businesses are not disadvantaged. In the United States, the legal framework for concessions has been revised in 2010 to ensure this doesn’t happen.

  • The planning of tourism development needs to be sufficiently specific to the ecosystems in each zone. Under a concession plan, authorities determine the ideal location of particular tourism activities and maximum numbers of tourists and tourism operators. Recently, authorities have restricted the number of tourism operators allowed to operate in the Haleakala National Park in Hawai’i to only four, based on a concession management plan aiming to ensure environmentally and culturally acceptable tourism.
    Such planning is already practised in many countries, including Australia (Queensland, Western Australia), Canada, Rwanda and Argentina.

Best practice for doing business

Currently, New Zealand is not using best practice in regulation and planning. Concession contracts are designed on a “do no harm” approach. The culture has been that if concessionaires rectify and mitigate environmental effects, then all should be fine.

The 1987 Conservation Act enables DOC to insert environmental responsibilities and requirements. However, the analysis of 30 concession contracts and tens of official documents reveals that compliance with more generic environmental regulations is typically deemed sufficient. In addition, DOC’s performance on monitoring and enforcing concessions has raised many complaints, even from tourism operators.

Even more problematic is that DOC mostly uses the non-competitive “first-come first-served” method to allocate concessions in PA plans that do not use visitation quotas, except for a few tracks and sensitive sites, such as caves or wetlands.

The cumulative impact of approved concessions has led to a number of tourism hotspots in several national parks. For example, helicopter landings have increased dramatically in the Fiordland and Westland National Parks. The famous Tongariro Crossing track is now used by thousands of visitors on any day with reasonable weather.

The ConversationHowever, DOC views this as a social carrying capacity issue. The government needs to demonstrate concern by implementing innovative regulatory and planning instruments with proven effectiveness. If a government cannot ask businesses that profit from access to a country’s most precious lands to use the best available environmental practices to manage biodiversity, then who can it ask?

Valentina Dinica, Senior Lecturer Public Policy, Victoria University of Wellington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As a coastal defence, the Great Barrier Reef’s value to communities goes way beyond tourism



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Parts of the Great Barrier Reef’s outer reefs can form a natural barrier to coastal recession, thus protecting urban centres.
AAP

Mark Gibbs, Queensland University of Technology

Rising sea levels are widely recognised as a threat to coastal communities worldwide. In Australia, the Climate Council estimates that at least A$226 billion of assets and infrastructure will be exposed to inundation if sea levels rise by 1.1 metres. Another report recommended that global mean sea level rise of up to 2.7 metres this century should be considered in planning processes.

The Queensland state government has commissioned the QCoast2100 program. This program aims to help with the development of coastal climate adaptation plans for Queensland communities exposed to sea-level rise.

Although the largest population centres in Queensland are in the state’s southeast, several of the most populous regional centres in Australia are located along the Great Barrier Reef coastline between Gladstone and Cape York. These include Townsville, Cairns, Gladstone, Mackay and Port Douglas.

A major task in developing coastal adaptation plans under the QCoast2100 program is to model inundation from a range of scenarios for sea-level rises and assess how assets will be inundated in the future. However, another threat is on the horizon.


Further reading: What’s the value of the Great Barrier Reef? It’s priceless


How urban centres are protected

Urban centres along the reef’s coastline, which forms the majority of the Queensland coast, are protected from major ocean storms by natural deposits of coastal sediments. These include dunes and associated vegetation such as coastal forests, wetlands and mangrove systems.

These natural features continue to exist largely because the Great Barrier Reef’s outer reefs dampen incoming ocean waves. Although exposed to the occasional cyclone – which can lead to short-term erosion at specific locations – much of the coastal zone inside the reef is slowly growing out into the sea.

This increasing buffer zone can form a natural barrier to coastal recession.

A recently released report estimated the total economic, social and icon asset value of the Great Barrier Reef at A$56 billion. By design, this report did not include many of the ecosystem services the reef provides. One of these is its role in reducing the energy of waves that impact the coastline behind the reef.

However, an earlier assessment of the total economic value of ecosystem services delivered by the reef estimated the present coastal protection benefit is worth at least A$10 billion.

Despite the inherent uncertainties in such assessments, it is clear the reef acts to reduce incoming wave energy and its impacts on cities and towns along much of the Queensland coastline. The total economic value of these benefits is in the billions of dollars.


Further reading: Coastal communities demand action on climate threats


What role is bleaching playing?

The Great Barrier Reef’s ability to keep protecting the Queensland shoreline, and communities living along it, depends upon the ability of individual reefs in the system to grow vertically to “keep up” with rising sea level.

The jury is still out on whether the outer reefs will be able to keep up with predicted rises. This is an active area of research.

However, it is clear reefs that are extensively affected by coral bleaching will struggle to maintain the essential processes required for productive reef-building. Many reefs are now experiencing net erosion.

Predictions of ocean warming suggest that bleaching events will become even more common in coming decades. Increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are also making the oceans more acidic, which makes it more difficult for organisms such as corals to maintain their skeletons, which are made of calcium carbonate. This mineral dissolves more rapidly with increasing acidification, reducing the reef’s capacity to recover from storm damage and coral bleaching.

Therefore, as bleaching events and acidification continue, the outer reefs that protect the Queensland coast from ocean waves will increasingly struggle to perform this function.

The ConversationIn turn, over time the Queensland coast will potentially suffer from more coastal erosion, which may increase the vulnerability of coastal infrastructure. This effect, combined with rising sea levels leading to more coastal inundation events, multiples the risks to coastal settlements and infrastructure.

Mark Gibbs, Director, Knowledge to Innovation; Chair, Green Cross Australia, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: the rise of naked tourism



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Some travellers may forget that where they travel is not their home, and that cultural sensitivities may differ greatly.
Naked At Monuments/Facebook

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, University of South Australia

In my American youth, there was a rude phrase describing kids acting up: “showing your butt”. It seems some tourists are now taking this literally.

Recently, tourists have been stripping down and photographing themselves at the world’s iconic locations to the bewilderment of some and the disgust of others. Social media is abuzz as tourists get snaps of their uncovered backsides at national parks, on top of mountains, and at World Heritage sites.

The desire to reveal one’s naked glory is not a new thing, as streakers at sporting events and the devotees of nude beaches and nudist camps demonstrate. But this trend of “naked tourism” reveals something more than just bare bottoms – and it may call for some active interventions.

Exposing the reasons for baring it all

In 2010, a French-born exotic dancer filmed herself stripping on the sacred monolith Uluru in central Australia. Some labelled this a “publicity grab”.

In early 2015, three young Frenchmen were charged with public exposure and pornography, given suspended sentences, fined, deported and banned from visiting Cambodia for four years after stripping down at Angkor Wat.

Lest we think this is a French thing, North Americans and Australians have bared their backsides at Machu Picchu in Peru. This led CNN to warn tourists to “watch out for bare butts”.

In the selfie era, attention-seeking and shock value are clear individual motivations. But perhaps there is more to it.

Social media is certainly encouraging the practice. A good example of this is the Naked At Monuments Facebook page, which describes its purpose as “we get naked around the world”. There is also the My Naked Trip blog. Together, these indicate naked tourism may be an emerging trend rather than an oddity.

Insulting the host community

Some travellers may forget that where they travel is not their home, and that cultural sensitivities may differ greatly.

While some cultures view revealing the body and its parts as an act of appreciation, others have quite different views. When tourists insist on imposing their values against their hosts’ wishes, profound emotions can be sparked. These may included anger, dismay and hurt.

In response to the stripping performance on Uluru, Aboriginal performer Jimmy Little communicated the hurt such a disrespectful act can inflict:

We are a proud race like every race in the world. We have sacred sites and we have deep beliefs that if people cross that line, they’re really almost spitting in your face, or slapping you in the face and saying ‘I can live my life the way I want to’.

In the Angkor Wat case, local authorities acted with some anger at the insult to the ancient, sacred temple complex. A spokeswoman for the Apsara Authority, the agency that manages Angkor Wat, said:

The temple is a worship site and their behaviour is inappropriate. They were nude.

How to (ad)dress this issue

The first line of defence is regulations with penalties that are enforced.

In the Angkor Wat case, the governing authorities enforced strong penalties on the young men for their actions. But for countries dependent on tourism, it takes considerable will to go down this path. The ongoing tolerance of bikinis on beaches in Muslim countries – albeit sometimes on restricted sites such as gated resorts or islands – attests to this.

Tourism between cultures is a moral space as much as it is a commercial one. The question is: in a time of creeping commercialism, individualism and me-oriented cultures, how can we ensure the cross-cultural encounters of tourism are respectful of the host’s cultures and values?

Codes of conduct are one tool for consumer education of travellers. The authority governing Angkor Wat responded to the naked tourists by updating visitor protocols in multiple languages.

Few know a Global Code of Ethics for Tourism exists. It claims:

Tourists have the responsibility to acquaint themselves, even before their departure, with the characteristics of the countries they are preparing to visit.

Tourism is based on hospitality, and this requires respect for hosts. They want visitors to voluntarily display respect.

Climbing Uluru is a great example of this. The Anangu traditional owners do not want visitors to climb this sacred place, but still do not ban it outright. One reason is deeply spiritual: the Anangu want visitors to respect their values and choose not to climb.

Such an approach has much to teach us about the meaning of travel between cultures. While today’s tourists travel freely to enjoy the world’s treasures, it does not mean such travel should be completely uninhibited.

The ConversationDifferent cultures hold different values, and the joy of travel should come from engaging with these differences and learning from them. Responsible tourism built on respect ensures a warm welcome.

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

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Climate change, tourism and the Great Barrier Reef: what we know


Allison Anderson, CQUniversity Australia

The removal of an entire section on the Great Barrier Reef from an international report on World Heritage and climate change has been justified by the Australian government because of the impact on tourism.

The Guardian reported that all mention of Australia has been removed from the report released on Friday. An Environment Department spokesperson was quoted as saying that “recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of World Heritage properties impacted on tourism”.

Australia is the only populated continent that was not mentioned in the report, which was produced by UNESCO, UNEP, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. It comes in the wake of one of the Great Barrier Reef’s most significant coral bleaching events – one widely attributed to climate change.

What’s to hide?

In its purest sense, it could be argued that it is important for the world to know about the impacts climate change is having on some of its most famous natural wonders. This has the potential to precipitate national and global policy change that might ultimately help the reef.

It could also be argued that much of the damage to perceptions of people around the world has already been done. The final episode of David Attenborough’s documentary on the Great Barrier Reef – which discusses the widespread bleaching in detail – arguably has far more potential to influence would-be tourists contemplating a visit to the reef.

News coverage of the events has reached audiences as far afield as the United States and Britain. And a recent picture essay on The Conversation provides evidence of the bleaching, observing the phenomenon as “a huge blow to all Australians who cherish this natural wonder and to the tourists who flock here to see the reef”.

The impact on tourism

Given that the issues on the reef are well known and widely covered, would the UNESCO report really have had an impact?

The Cairns tourism industry is a vital export earner, not only for the region but for the nation. The region has more than 2.4 million visitors per year, contributing A$3.1 billion to the economy, with the Great Barrier Reef as its anchor attraction.

Adding complexity to the issue, there is debate locally as to how widespread the coral bleaching reported by scientists really is.

The tourism industry in Cairns has been quick to counter scientists’ claims with its own. Tour operator Quicksilver has responded with Reef Health Updates featuring a marine biologist who claims that as the water cools through winter, many of the coral are likely to regain their colour.

Tourists have also been interviewed for the campaign, emerging from the water amazed and astounded at the diversity of colour and marine life they have seen.

Regional tourism organisation Tourism Tropical North Queensland has also begun a campaign to showcase undamaged parts of the reef.

Tourism is a perception-based activity. Expectations of pristine waters and diverse marine life on a World Heritage-listed reef are what drives the Cairns and North Queensland tourism industry in Australia.

We know from past research that perceptions of damage to the natural environment from events such as cyclones do influence travel decisions, but we do not yet know how this translates to coral bleaching events.

Researchers in the region are working to collect data from tourists about how their pre-existing perceptions of coral cover and colour match their actual experiences.

This will provide evidence of the impacts of the bleaching event on the tourist experience and also shed light on what has shaped tourists’ perceptions prior to visiting. Currently, we only have anecdotal evidence from operators and the tourist interviews in the Quicksilver video on what these impacts really are.

What impact could this have on the reef?

From another perspective, tourism is particularly valuable to the reef because it is a relatively clean industry that relies on the preservation, rather than depletion, of the resource for its own survival.

The Great Barrier Reef is a resource of value to both tourism and other industries. In the past, the reef has narrowly escaped gas mining, oil spill disasters and overfishing, not to mention the ongoing impacts of land-based industries along the coast that drains to it.

It is important to remember that the original World Heritage listing was “born out of a 12-year popular struggle to prevent the most wondrous coral reef in the world from being destroyed by uncontrolled mining”. This raises questions about whether the comparative economic importance of mining and other industries could increase if tourism declines.

The message about the threats to the Great Barrier Reef is already in the public domain. Research is still being done on the true impact of the bleaching event and associated perceptions on the tourism industry, and the results are not yet conclusive.

Rather than bury information that many people globally already have access to, perhaps the Australian government could think more creatively about how it is addressing the issues and promoting this as a positive campaign for “one of the best managed marine areas in the world”.

The Conversation

Allison Anderson, Lecturer in tourism planning and development, CQUniversity Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ecotourism could be making animals less scared, and easier to eat


Daniel Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles; Benjamin Geffroy, Institut Nationale de Recherche Agronomique (INRA) – Université Paris Saclay; Diogo Samia, Universidade de Sao Paulo, and Eduardo Bessa, Universidade do Estado de Mato Grosso

Wildlife populations are suffering death by a thousand cuts as a result of human activities. Wildlife are being hunted, fished, and poached. They are suffering from climate change and pollution. Diseases take their toll, as do newly invasive species. They are also being fragmented as a function of increased habitat destruction.

These are obvious culprits of environmental disruption. But there is one realm where we may be having an unanticipated impact on wildlife: nature-based tourism.

It is possible that our increasing penchant for nature tourism is making wildlife in these areas more vulnerable to predators. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have enough data to properly assess this risk.

Our team brought attention to this concern in a review recently published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. In the study, we attempt to understand how animals may become more docile, bolder, and less fearful when exposed to humans.

We suggest this could then potentially lead to an increased risk of predation when people leave the area, signalling an unrecognised cost of ecotourism.

A ‘human shield’

To domesticate animals, we must tame them, and this often means deliberately selecting those individuals that are more docile and tolerant. Domestication is, in part, achieved by making animals safe from predators – for example by fencing them in, bringing them into our homes, or raising them in cages.

We are now learning that urbanisation causes similar effects: animals that prosper in the cities are generally more docile and less fearful of humans than animals that live outside the cities. There is also evidence of genetic evolution of urban animal populations.

In many cases, predators avoid urban areas, creating a “human shield” that protects urban prey and can trigger a cascade of ecological changes. Behind such a shield, prey become more likely to frequent the areas predators avoid. This leads prey to be less vigilant against predators and devote a greater time to foraging. We can often see these effects when the vegetation takes a noticeable hit.

But urbanised areas are not the only context where human shields can arise. Nature-based tourism, too, might create a shield effect.

More tourists, more animals getting eaten?

According to a recent report, there are more than 8 billion visits to terrestrial protected areas annually. That’s as if each person on Earth visited a protected area once, and then some! This number is even more impressive given that the report only considered visitors to protected areas larger than 10 hectares, and didn’t include marine protected areas.

Such a human presence on natural areas has obvious damaging effects, such as increased traffic and pollution, vegetation trampling, and vehicle collisions with wildlife. However, in our study we speculate that nature-based tourism might, under certain circumstances, also create a human shield that makes wildlife more vulnerable to predators.

We already know that this has increased some species’ vulnerability to wildlife poachers and illegal hunters.

At first glance, it seems unlikely that animals would respond less to predators simply by becoming used to the presence of humans.

Prey species have sophisticated anti-predator abilities to assess their risk of attack. These inborn warning systems are the result of an evolutionary arms race, meaning that some animals respond to “ghosts” even after being isolated from predators for some time.

For instance, island populations of Sitka black-tailed deer isolated from predators for 60 years showed a similar level of vigilance to deer exposed to predators.

But there is some evidence that individuals that are bold around humans may also be bold around their predators. For instance, fox squirrels from a population habituated to human presence responded less to different predator noises than individuals from the non-habituated population.

Fox squirrels that are used to having humans around are less responsive to predators. Is this true for other species, too?
mandj98/flickr, CC BY-NC

Animals learn responses to their environment that can form predictable behavioural patterns. Such a pattern may, for example, link docility with a reduced response to predators. In this way, docile animals may respond inappropriately in the presence of a predator.

So if tourism-related human shields are sufficiently stable to make animals more tolerant towards humans, and if by being exposed to humans animals become more docile or excessively bold, these individuals may be more vulnerable when exposed to real predators.

What next?

Our paper is a call for more research on this important issue. Indeed, the journal we published in routinely publishes papers that seek to stimulate new work in this area and we listed a number of examples of needed studies in our review.

While UNESCO has guidelines for ecotourism, they do not address the issues we identified. We need to understand the factors and conditions under which human shields arise and their effects on wildlife behaviour. Armed with data from many species from different locations and studied under varied conditions, we will be better able to provide concrete management recommendations to wildlife managers.

Nevertheless, four such likely recommendations are to:

  • Create zones for governing visits in natural areas (as is done in many areas already, like the Galapagos).

  • Enforce times where natural areas are closed off to humans (as for hunting).

  • Avoid contact with humans in places where there are pups and juveniles (if, as we suspect, early contact with humans may enhance docility in wild animals).

  • Reduce or eliminate feeding of wildlife by tourist operators and guides (a common practice in a number of “ecotourist” venues).

To tour, or not to tour

So, is ecotourism a good thing or a bad thing? It depends.

In many developing countries, people must choose between consuming natural resources or creating another viable economy. Often, nature-based tourism and ecotourism creates unique economic opportunities. Here any increased predation costs of ecotourism will pale in comparison to the benefits this industry can bring.

However, when dealing with small and vulnerable populations, or when dealing with nature-based tourism in more developed countries, perhaps any excess predation is less acceptable.

We believe that ecotourists, who travel to help communities and biodiversity, will be those most open to self-regulation, if required, to better preserve local wildlife. We hope that the research our review stimulates will help provide the information and tools to improve the benefits of ecotourism, while eliminating or reducing the negative impacts. Time will tell and we’re excited to learn more.

The Conversation

Daniel Blumstein, Professor and chair for the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles; Benjamin Geffroy, Postdoctoral Fellow, Institut Nationale de Recherche Agronomique (INRA) – Université Paris Saclay; Diogo Samia, Postdoctoral Fellow, Universidade de Sao Paulo, and Eduardo Bessa, Professor of Zoology, Universidade do Estado de Mato Grosso

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.