The Impact of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in Sustainable Tourism


The issue of natural resources and their sustainability has been subject to a huge number of debates as individuals, institutions, companies, and governments seek to find ways of benefiting economically from their existence while at the same time ensuring that these resources are not exploited in such a way that will lead to their depletion or extinction. While in most cases the different stakeholders disagree on how to go about it, they all agree that sustainable resource use is necessary and can no longer be ignored while coming up with different beneficial policies and strategies for their countries.

Tourism is one of the major sectors that have attracted much debate as some of the natural resources are major attractions for tourists, and the economic benefits that accrue from this sector are too great to be ignored or done away with. Because of this, there is a need to strike a balance between the economic and the sustainable aspects of tourism. The resultant challenge, in this case, is how to come up with a solution or way forward that will ensure the market requirements for the tourism industry are met, the economic benefits are achieved and the rights and needs of humanity are acquired both at the present and in future (Harris, Griffin & Williams xv).

Sustainable Tourism

The idea behind sustainable tourism is the realization that economic growth, coupled with the concern for the environment and peoples’ quality of life and social values form a major basis for the long-term and continued development of tourism as well as related policies. This means that the decisions that are made at present regarding sustainable tourism will determine the environmental, social, and economic benefits that will be accrued in the future (Edgell vi).

Sustainable tourism can be said to include tourism activities that can be preserved in the long run to achieve the economic, environmental, social, and cultural benefits that accrue from tourism in specific areas or regions. According to the World Tourism Organisation, sustainable tourism refers to that kind of tourism that works to serve the needs of current tourists and the region’s people in a way that will safeguard and augment opportunities for the future (Weaver 12-13).

This means that the social and economic benefits of tourism will be enhanced while at the same time reducing the detrimental or adverse effects of such tourism on the social, natural, and historic environment of the region. As such, the proper management of sustainable tourism can pave way for the realization of economic success while at the same time maintaining integrity in the cultural, social, and environmental arenas (Edgell 1).

Sustainable Tourism in Australia

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, tourism in Australia has been experiencing tremendous growth over the years making it a major contributor to the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and in effect the economic development. This kind of growth is expected to go on in the future (689). As a result of this, different stakeholders have taken to ensuring the destructive effects tourism causes to the environment are minimized to achieve sustainable tourism development. Australia’s main tourist attraction sites include its beaches, state parks, and national parks among other natural resources such as the Great Barrier Reef which is the main focus of this paper.

Sustainable Tourism in the Great Barrier Reef and its Impact

The Great Barrier Reef is made up of more than 2,900 different coral reefs and stretches over a distance of more than 2000 kilometers. Within it there are about nine hundred islands, making it the world’s largest, most diverse coral reef (Veron 1-2). It is host to a varied number of fish species and also rare coral species some of which have been declared endangered. It is also a significant breeding ground for dolphins, turtles, and whales.

It also has a rich cultural and spiritual heritage because of the presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes who live near it. Due to the significance accorded to it both at the national and the world levels, its protection has become paramount and the majority of this obligation falls on Australia. Since tourism, commercial, extractive, recreational, and shipping activities are allowed on the marine park, their negative impact on the reef itself and its ecosystem must be minimized. Besides the destruction caused by human activities, there are also natural causes such as climate change, runoff, and massive coral bleaching.

The agency charged with its protection as well as ensuring its sustainable use for the benefit of upcoming generations is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. It also ensures that Australia meets its protection obligations as outlined by the World Heritage convention (Australian Bureau of Statistics 703). The need for sustainable development of the Great Barrier Reef stems from the importance it holds both for the people living around it as well as Australia’s economy. It is however important to note that it is these same activities that are beneficial to the people that also lead to the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. The following is an outline of the benefits as well as the danger they pose to the sustainability of the reef:

Fishing: Fishing in the Great Barrier Reef is done for both economic and recreational purposes. It acts as a source of income for the people living around it and also as a source of food. However, this kind of fishing has led to the endangerment of some of the fish species found in the Reef as a result of overfishing. Boats coming to fish in the area also cause water pollution in the Reef which leads to the destruction of the Reef’s habitat. Responsible fishing is thus encouraged by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) to protect the Reef’s environment as well as to maintain ecological balance in the reef (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority para. 1-2).

Shipping: The Reef acts as a route for many commercial ships and even though the coral reefs make it hard for ships to maneuver around, it is considered a safer route in cases where ships develop mechanical problems. However, shipping accidents occurring from time to time have been a major cause for concern for authorities as most of them result in the pollution of the Reef’s waters thereby affecting the Reef’s marine life and the corals. One such accident occurred in 2004 involving a coal carrier in the Douglas Shoals area which resulted in major oil spillage.

Tourism: The Reef has a great deal of biodiversity and scenic sites which act as major tourist attraction sites for boat riders and scuba divers among others. Tourism is the single largest commercial activity in the Reef and surrounding regions. In 2003 income generated from tourism in the Reef amounted to over four billion dollars and judging from the growth of the sector, this figure must be way above that at present. Part of this income goes to the GBRMPA and is used for research to come up with viable sustainable strategies for the reef and the surrounding environment. There are also policies in place to limit the tourist traffic in the Reef to encourage ecologically sustainable tourism.

Climate change: Even though climate change is a natural occurrence, its threat to the reef cannot be ignored. These climate changes have been attributed to destructive human activities across the world leading to global warming, which is the direct cause of these climate changes. This has led to increased ocean temperatures which have led to coral bleaching and have also impacted negatively on marine life in the Reef’s waters.

Challenges Faced in the Implementation of Policies meant to Ensure Sustainable Tourism in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

If such destruction as outlined above is allowed to continue, then most of the reef’s tourist attraction sites will no longer attract tourists to the area and the tourism industry in the country will fail. Consequences to people’s social and economic lives will be detrimental and this will, in turn, affect Australia’s economy in a major way. To avoid this, different stakeholders have come up with different ways to prevent continued destruction to pave way for sustainable tourism and the benefits that come with it. The stakeholders include the GBRMPA, government agencies, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, the marine tourism industry, and surrounding communities among others. These stakeholders have faced different challenges in the implementation of policies meant to curb this destruction, including the following:

Increasing Tourist Numbers: The number of tourists to the Great Barrier Reef has increased over the years and will continue doing so in the predictable future. This poses a problem to stakeholders in that there are no policies in place regulating the number of tourists visiting the Reef at a specific time. With the increasing number of tourists come control issues since their activities at the reef cannot be controlled. The tourism permits that were introduced turned out to be ineffective as they were complex and constantly modified making their full implementation a problem (Watson, Skeat & Barnett 254).

Fishing: Even though there are laws in place banning fishing activities in designated parts of the reef, it is not possible to completely regulate the level of fishing that takes place as some of the recreational and commercial fishermen continue to ignore these Laws or take advantage of their loopholes. This is mostly due to ignorance on their part as at times they believe that the fish resource at the Reef is inexhaustible while for others, the economic benefits of fishing are too big a motivation to ignore. One such ban was put in place in 2004 and was considered the largest no-fishing zone in the reef since it covered a third of the park (Hile para. 1-3).

Weak Sustainable Tourism Strategies: Some of the policies put in place to encourage sustainable tourism at the reef as well as to protect it are weak as they do not take into account all the factors of tourism making their implementation a problem. For example, infrastructure development at the reef such as hotel resorts does not take into account their impact on the natural environment since it is more bent towards infrastructure development as opposed to the repercussions such as continued modification of the natural environment (Weaver 20).

Stakeholders Views: The other challenge faced by those involved in the quest toward sustainable tourism in the Great Barrier Reef is the continued disagreement between the major stakeholders on what policies to put in place to ensure that the reef is maintained and how to implement them. Since they all benefit in different ways, they all seek to have policies that will ensure maximum benefits on their part meaning that if planned policies have the effect of limiting these benefits, disagreements arise.

To ensure that such disagreements are minimized, major consultations and focus on the expected goals is necessary because if the Reef is not exploited sustainably then the tourism industry will suffer in the future. The private sector is a large investor in the tourism industry and thus should be encouraged to contribute to the sustainability process.

Climate Change and Global Warming: Tackling the effects of global warming has proven to be a great challenge to the Great Barrier Reef as it is a natural occurrence. According to Cox (para. 1), coral bleaching which occurs as a result of warm ocean temperatures caused by changing climate patterns has led to the killing of more than sixteen percent of the Barrier’s coral reefs. If this continues, the reef will face destruction in a few decades meaning the goals of sustainable tourism will not be achieved.

Pollution: Sustainable tourism in the Great Barrier Reef can only be achieved if the environment is kept pollution-free as people tend to avoid environmentally polluted areas due to the possible negative impact on their health. For example, no one would be willing to swim, fish, or scuba dive in polluted water. The water quality in the Reef has declined over the years as a result of pollution from floods, shipping activities, and surface runoff polluted with pesticides and fertilizers. In as much as action is being taken to combat the effects of these occurrences, the fact remains that “prevention is better than cure”. The major stakeholders are thus faced with the challenge of ensuring that such pollution does not occur or is minimized in cases of natural occurrence.

Effectiveness of Stakeholder Efforts in Ensuring Sustainable Tourism

Despite the persistent challenges, it is important to recognize the efforts of several stakeholders in ensuring sustainable tourism in the Reef. Some of these efforts have paid off to some extent but much more still needs to be done.

In 2003, the GBRMPA came up with a zoning plan for the Great Barrier Reef which was meant to control shipping in the marine park. It took effect in 2004 and since then ships have been forced to take specific routes through the park unless under special circumstances which have been outlined in the plan, such as mechanical problems (Australian Government & GBRMPA 1-2).

The plan takes into account the international obligations Australia holds and is also based on predicted future shipping route patterns meaning that its effectiveness is guaranteed to a certain level. Permits have to be acquired for ships intending to use routes outside of the designated areas and failure to acquire them elicits punitive fines. Due to this, the GBRMPA has been able to attain some control over shipping activities and in effect minimized their destructive impact on the Reef and its associated marine life.

Fishing bans put in place though not fully effective have helped reduce the danger fishing activities pose to the Reef and its marine life. The destruction caused by fishing boats in the designated areas where the bans are in place has also been minimized. The fishing bans have helped reduce the danger of extinction on specific fish species and other marine life. Research has also been intensified to find ways of dealing with the effects of climate change and global warming and if successful then this will help reduce coral bleaching thereby saving the corals from dying off in the future.

There are continuing efforts to protect the Great Barrier Reef to achieve sustainable tourism as evidenced by the introduction of the Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill 2009, whose main objective is to deal with the effects of agricultural activities on the Reef and its water quality. Once in place, its regulatory structures will ensure that those engaging in agricultural activities in areas surrounding the Reef put in place measures that will curb contamination in the Reef by their fertilizers and pesticides (State and Commonwealth 1). This bill was compiled by the state government and commonwealth with the support of other stakeholders.


Ensuring that the Great Barrier Reef is maintained in a way that ensures its sustainability will lead to sustainable tourism in Australia since it is a major tourist attraction site. This means that all stakeholders will need to ensure that the policies they come up with and implement towards this goal are viable and will work at present and in the future. Sustainable tourism will ensure that the country’s economy continues to thrive as the sector makes large contributions to the country’s GDP and in effect its economic growth and development.

In doing this the balance between the social, environmental, and economic factors must be struck such that none of the sectors benefits more at the expense of the other. Engaging the local communities and the private sector in these efforts is also necessary as they contribute largely to the developments that take place along the surroundings of the Reef.

Works Cited

Australian Bureau of Statistics. Year Book, Australia, Issue 87. Australia: Commonwealth of Australia, 2003. Print.

Australian Government & GBRMPA. 2003. Web.

Bushnell, Robyn. & Eagles, Paul. Tourism and Protected Areas: Benefits beyond Boundaries. Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2007.

Cox, Brad. “Can tourism save the Great Barrier Reef”? 2006. Web.

Edgell, David. Managing Sustainable Tourism: A Legacy for the Future. New York: Haworth Press, Inc, 2006.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. “Fishing: Responsible Practices”. 2010. Web.

Harris, Rob. Griffin, Tony. & Williams, Peter. Sustainable Tourism: A Global Perspective. Massachusetts: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002.

Hile, Jennifer. “Largest No-Fishing Zone Declared in Great Barrier Reef”. 2004.

Moscardo, Gianna. Building Community Capacity for Tourism Development. Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2008.

State & Commonwealth. “Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Bill 2009”. 2009. Web.

Veron, John. A Reef in Time: The Great barrier Reef from Beginning to End. Australia: Australian institute of Marine Science, 2008.

Watson, Kim. Skeat, Hilary & Barnett, Bryony. “Tourism Management in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia”. 2000. Web.

Weaver, David. Sustainable Tourism: Theory and Practice. Massachusetts: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006.

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