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Making Tourism Beneficial to Both Tourists and Natives of Australia

Tourism can be an important source of livelihoods at a destination level. Yet, while there are economic benefits associated with more tourists, there can also be costs to destinations in the form of negative environmental and social impacts. This paper illustrates tourism-related dilemmas for two remote regions within Australia’s tropical savannas where increasing visitor numbers are straining not only the very environmental assets that attract tourist, but also the host communities. The paper draws on research conducted under the auspices of the Tropical Savannas Management Cooperative Research Centre. Tourism impacts on the regions are described and, where possible, quantified and distributional effects discussed.

Evidence is provided that host populations in the remote of Australia’s tropical savannas are willing to trade off environmental and social costs for economic benefits, but that this situation may not be ecologically sustainable. The regions are parts of much larger destinations and consequently peripheral to their concerns. The onus for sustainable tourism and regional development strategies therefore falls on local decision makers. The research presented here provides a framework for local decision makers and stakeholders to ask questions, collect relevant data, and proceed with informed debates and choices.

Exhilarating Travels
Exhilarating Travels

Tourism growth is often considered an integral element of economic development strategies for remote countries and rural and remote areas within countries, particularly where once prevalent primary industries are in decline. It is generally promoted as a source of employment, revenue, additional tax receipts, foreign exchange benefits and enhanced community infrastructure and can act as a tool for sustainable development in transition economies. For people living in remote and peripheral regions with few industry options, tourism can provide a vital contribution to livelihoods. For example for central-west Queensland, a remote region within Australia’s vast outback and part of its tropical savanna landscapes, tourism has been transformational for the regional economy, facilitating the transition from a declining predominantly primary industry economy to a service economy.

Like many remote regions elsewhere, Australia’s tropical savannas offer an essentially nature-based tourist product. Vast landscapes offer drive-through, four-wheel driving, bushwalking and birdwatching experiences. Extensive coastlines, rivers and waterholes support recreational fishing. Indigenous communities provide cultural experiences. Tropical savannas therefore retain aesthetic amenity and wilderness qualities that no longer exist in non-peripheral areas. Read more at this website

While economic benefits, including increased business activity and employment, clearly arise from an expanding tourism industry in remote areas, there can be social and environmental costs—particularly because tourism is nature-based and therefore dependent on and a major user of natural resources and biodiversity and when tourism collides with the values and aspirations of host communities. In north Australia’s remote regions the proportion of indigenous people tends to be high among the resident population and consequently cultural impacts of tourism are also of concern.

Studies

Developing nature-based tourism in remote areas such as the tropical savannas is a difficult balancing act between achieving regional development objectives and retaining high levels of naturalness. Maintaining natural attractions and environmental assets is critical to the sustainability of nature-based tourist destinations as, by definition, these form the basis for leisure travel undertaken predominantly for the purpose of enjoying natural attractions and engaging in a variety of outdoor activities. The challenge of trading off between conflicting objectives and different stakeholder interests in remote areas in particular is heightened by a general lack of data, and data which are often incomparable, inconsistent or not credible.

Australia Travel
Australia Travel

Host populations need to reconcile economic gain and benefits with the costs of living with strangers. Such a reconciliation or integration is at the heart of the question of net social benefit and requires data and an understanding of tourism benefits and costs, as well as relevant factors and relationships. Such knowledge is particularly pertinent in a remote destination context, where even relatively small numbers of tourists can have large impacts. Integrating economic, social and environmental dimensions is best facilitated by adopting a systems view of tourism. Tourism system models are helpful because of their explanatory power. They can illustrate various facets of tourism, explore interdependencies of major components and internal feedback relationships, investigate external influence factors and demonstrate the scope of influence of various decision makers. Many systems models of tourism have been developed, most of which take a tourist demand perspective, often with the intention of improving the competitiveness of a destination and increasing tourist numbers. You can click here for further reading on this topic.

Tourists were perceived to have a negative impact on health services in the region. This is because during peak tourist season the population of the region virtually doubles and mostly retiree (i.e., elderly) tourists have a high demand for health infrastructure and services. Tourists were also perceived to generate congestion at places popular with local residents. However, most respondents rated social interactions with visitors as positive. There was also a general view that tourism had a positive impact on the product range offered by local retail businesses and service delivery (e.g., maintenance of public areas and parks) by the shire council.

The quality, diversity, abundance and accessibility of environmental assets in the tropical savannas provide the impetus for tourists to visit remote north Australian regions. The notions of remoteness and wilderness are key elements of their tourist products. Peripherality is thus an asset. Host populations are generally welcoming of tourists and appreciate the income and employment benefits generated by them. Existing small businesses have diversified their operations and new businesses have emerged to provide infrastructure and services. Increasing tourism demand has thus allowed many destination regions within the tropical savannas to diversify their economies.

As the two regions which are featured in this paper illustrate, there has been a price to pay for tourism, particularly in terms of environmental impacts. In the Gulf of Carpentaria, in particular, recreational fishing-based tourism is highly consumptive of natural resources. Tourists take fish in numbers that rival and, for some species, even exceed the harvest of commercial fisheries. While individuals may well stay within legal possession limits, the aggregate and cumulative impact of this level of resource extraction is as yet unknown.

Similar environmental issues either exist or are emerging in other parts of the Tropical Savannas, in particular the Nhulunbuy and Mc Arthur River regions in the Northern Territory and the Burketown region in Queensland. The reverse problem exists in the northern Kimberley, where tourists leave in their wake weeds, excrement and fires. From tourist accounts it is questionable, whether the rubbish problem is indeed associated with tourism or more attributable to the residential population.

Conclusions

There are also social costs or inconveniences involved for host populations. These can take benign forms such as having to share favorite recreational areas and incurring inconveniences associated with tourist traffic on country roads. However, the socially most disadvantaged sections of the host population, specifically the indigenous population, are particularly affected by shops inflating prices during the tourist season and the single ambulance in the Gulf of Carpentaria region being tied up with emergencies of a majority elderly tourist population. There are also disparities in the distribution of economic benefits from tourism between the indigenous and non-indigenous sections of host populations, with very limited direct involvement of the indigenous population in tourism.

Seasonal tourist workers even compete for (unskilled) jobs during the tourist season. This is an indicator of inequalities in the distribution of net social benefits from tourism within regional communities. On the other hand, this situation points to an untapped potential for culturally specific tourist experiences. Some indigenous communities within the tropical savannas have successfully tapped this potential, for example the Jawoyn people at Nitmiluk. However, pathways to and extent of indigenous participation in tourism will differ between indigenous peoples depending on their particular circumstances and the requirements of chosen enterprises. You’ll find this site a good resource on this subject.

The question of preferred style of tourism in a given destination and associated trade-offs is associated with political choices and based on value systems. To rise to the central challenge of ecologically sustainable development, options and associated trade-offs need to be explicit, based on systematic research, and accompanied by an ability to anticipate and monitor, and adaptively manage the system. This paper provides examples of empirical research which can support dialog and underpin tourism planning and management—in an endeavor to support decision makers in the peripheral areas of the tropical savannas of Australia to harness the potential of tourism as one driver of ecologically sustainable development and minimize the risk of nature-based tourism turning into a disaster.

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