‘Last-Chance Tourism’ Is Adding to the Great Barrier Reef’s Woes

A survey finds that visitors want to see the underwater marvel before it’s destroyed by climate change.

A tourist snorkels above coral in the lagoon on Lady Elliot Island, northeast of Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia, on June 9, 2015. (Photo: David Gray/Reuters)

Sep 10, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Australia’s tourism sector may be receiving an ironic uptick in visitors despite the deterioration of one of the continent’s main draws, the Great Barrier Reef.

That’s because people are worried that if they don’t go now, they may never see the planet’s largest living organism and the millions of corals, tropical fish, turtles, dolphins, and sharks it supports.

It’s called “last-chance tourism,” a phenomenon in which visitors explicitly seek out vanishing lands or seascapes. The fear is being driven largely by the reality of climate change. Warming ocean temperatures, coastal development, and invasive species have laid waste to roughly half the corals along the 1,200-mile-long Great Barrier Reef in the past three decades. This year, the reef experienced the worst coral bleaching ever, with one study estimating that up to 93 percent of corals were affected. Another study suggested coral bleaching episodes will only get worse.

The flurry of international media coverage on the reef’s demise got environmental researcher Annah Piggott-McKellar at the University of Queensland wondering what kind of influence those reports are having on the $5.6 billion reef-related tourism industry.

In a survey published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Piggott-McKellar and fellow researchers discovered that nearly 70 percent of visitors to the Great Barrier Reef in 2015 said a desire to see the reef before it’s gone was their main reason for journeying to the World Heritage Site.

Coral on the Great Barrier Reef, off Cairns, Queensland, Australia, shows signs of bleaching. (Photo: Ashley Cooper/Getty Images)

The 235 survey takers were selected from three reef-related tourist hot spots in Queensland. They were asked to choose among 15 reasons for coming to the Great Barrier Reef and to rate the importance of all 15, including options such as “to see the reef before it is gone,” “to rest and relax,” and “to discover new places and things.”

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Piggott-McKellar said the only other instances where this type of tourism has been observed is in polar regions; tourists have been rushing to see polar bears in the Arctic and retreating glaciers in Antarctica.

Tour operators may benefit in the immediate future, but the long-term health of the reef is in doubt, and the increased level of tourism might exacerbate pressure on the vulnerable ecosystem, Piggott-McKellar warned. She added that media reports highlighting destinations to “see before they’re gone” have a responsibility to inform tourists about the potential ecological damage involved in visiting those areas.

“Our research found the media is where most people develop their perceptions of the Great Barrier Reef and, speculatively, other tourism destinations,” Piggott-McKellar said. “I believe they hold much power to inform the general public of the threats facing tourist destinations and hopefully use that position to increase education and promote positive change.”

The Australian government, on the other hand, was found to have lobbied UNESCO to remove references to climate change’s impact on the Great Barrier Reef in a recent report.

“Recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of world heritage properties impacted on tourism,” the Australian Environment Department wrote in a statement to news.com.au. “The department was concerned that the framing of the report confused two issues—the world heritage status of the sites and risks arising from climate change and tourism.”

In place of listing the reef among UNESCO’s “destinations at risk,” Australia made a deal with the United Nations conservation agency to restore the Great Barrier Reef, outlining a plan that includes increasing reef monitoring and slashing reef-polluting agriculture runoff by 80 percent before 2025.

Piggott-McKellar said that while tourism has flourished this year—aided by a falling Australian dollar—a tipping point most likely lies ahead.

“There is the question of whether or not there is a threshold of when people see the reef as too far gone to visit,” she said. “It would be very interesting to see how this tourism trend progresses into the future, especially if major bleaching events continue to occur as has been projected.”