A visitors view: UNESCO World Heritage and the broken promises of ecotourism
Ana offers us an view from an international visitor drawn to Australia to connect with our natural spaces. What sort of face do we present to the world in our national parks and World Heritage sites?
The UNESCO World Heritage natural sites assemble the most unique and outstanding ecosystems in our planet. Australia hosts 16 natural sites (12 Natural sites and 4 mixed natural and cultural sites). By signing the World Heritage Convention, Australia is committed to the protection and conservation of these invaluable natural spaces.
According to the report World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate (UNESCO, 2016) climate change is becoming one of the most significant risks for World Heritage sites. However, the increasing pressure for economic development driven by the tourism sector remains one of the key causes of the rapid and permanent degradation of the outstanding attributes that make World Heritage sites such unique, and hence popular, tourist destinations.
A wide range of activities and uses have taken place in natural fragile areas under the banner of ecotourism since the 1980’s from low impact guided visits and kayaking, to glamping, five star resorts and four wheel drive (4WD) tours. The drift from the original purpose of ecotourism towards pure economic development in World Heritage sites is astonishing. Over exploitation and degradation of natural sites, growing pressure on ecosystems and wildlife, as well as the increased risk of introducing invasive species, all combine to diminish the visitor experience and therefore their understanding of the outstanding values and hence their commitment to preserving them.
In 2017, seeking to understand and to experience firsthand the challenges facing World Heritage sites with regard to climate change and expanding ecotourism services, I set forth on a 10 month trip across the South Pacific Ocean. I travelled from the Galapagos Islands to New Zealand and Australia. As part of this voyage I had the opportunity to visit the most iconic national parks and World Heritage sites in Queensland. From the Gondwana Rainforest in south east Queensland to the Daintree Rainforest in the north, I experienced a large range of ecotourism services and I was not disapointed.
On one side of the coin my visit to the Daintree Rainforest showed me that authentic ecotourism services do exist and that an equilibrum between conservation, local and economic development is possible. On the other hand I took part in a local family run 4WD visit to Fraser Island which had more similarity to a car rally on the sand. While authentic experiences are possible, I also was confronted with poor tour guide services and a stark lack of information on the natural values of the sites I was being shown. I also went on a boat tour to the Whitsundays where, despite the valuable information provided by my guide, the huge number of tourists on the site left little space for a connection with nature or pondering on the magnificence of this natural space.
My generation has the responsibility to protect and preserve these remaining pristine areas. They are a heritage from our past and invaluable for the generations to come. Thought and action by government institutions and local communities is urgently needed. It is imperative that we change course from the current trend whereby increasingly economic activities are prioritised in our natural spaces. Growing development pressure has taken a toll on heritage sites, in Australia and internationally under the cloak of “eco-tourism”.
Markham, A., Osipova, E., Lafrenz Samuels, K. and Caldas, A. 2016. World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi, Kenya and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Paris, France.
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