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Tourism is one of Australia's most important industries and has had an enormous impact on Australia's built and physical environments. Tourism is driven by people's desire for adventure and yearning to discover places of natural and cultural significance, beauty or intrigue. The irony inherent in the concept of tourism is that often it is these precise values which can become threatened by the scores of visitors who seek to explore them. This is why when developing a tourism industry it is essential to understand that its effects on the environment can be both negative and positive. This chapter discusses the pros and cons of tourism in Australia, in light of the range of impacts it has had upon both the built and natural environments. It also assesses the emergence of ecotourism in Australia and what this has meant for Australia's environments.

The tourism industry in Australia

Tourism is an extremely important industry in Australia. Each year it creates thousands of jobs and generates a great deal of wealth for the nation. In the 2003-04 financial period it contributed roughly 4 per cent towards Australia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP); this same year it also employed around 5.6 per cent of the Australian workforce and made up 12 per cent of all exports. The Australian tourism industry has grown so much in recent decades that it is now an increasingly popular field of academic study, with degrees in tourism management offered at many Australian universities. See image 1

People from across the world are drawn to Australia for its range of unique attractions, which include the largest coral reef system in the world, seemingly endless deserts, tropical rainforests, and a rich Indigenous heritage. Promoters of Australian tourism, both in and out of the country, indeed have a long list of features to choose from when developing their campaigns. Australia is also a relatively safe country for tourists to travel through and our infrastructure is generally very well set up for tourism.

Major impacts of tourism - the built environment

Tourism has had many impacts upon the built environment in Australia. One of the key factors behind the development and promotion of a tourism industry has been its ability to provide opportunities for employment and wealth generation in host areas, both directly and indirectly. Income generated by tourism in a small coastal town, for example, can create jobs and business opportunities for locals and even lead to influxes of new residents. The positive effects that this has on local economies can be the driving force behind infrastructure such as schools, transport systems and hospitals.

In many instances, the economic benefits of tourism are much more sustainable than the economic gains generated from uses of the host region for other industries. The Wet Tropics World Heritage Area in northern Queensland provides an example of where tourism has replaced an environmentally destructive industry, logging, and proven to be much more ecologically and economically sustainable. See image 2

Major impacts of tourism - the physical environment

Often there is a fine line between what people consider to be positive and negative in terms of tourism's impacts upon Australia's physical environments. While stopping tourism altogether would now be unfeasible, minimising its impacts and striking a balance between economic gains and environmental conservation, is something that should be worked towards.

Negative effects

There are many examples of tourism having impacted negatively on the physical environment. Over-development along coastal strips (such as the Gold Coast in Queensland) has created ecological problems for many of Australia's beautiful beaches. Plants and shrubs have been removed from rainforests to make room for walking trails. Recreational activities such as four-wheel driving have destroyed sand dunes and vegetation, and bottom-trawling in the Great Barrier Reef has had adverse effects on biodiversity. Visitors have dumped non-biodegradable rubbish into previously unspoilt ecosystems, the construction of sea walls and marinas for the benefit of humans has disrupted natural erosion processes of marine and estuarine environments, and the growing presence of humans in remote areas lacking infrastructure has caused significant waste management problems. These are just a few of the negative effects that increased human traffic caused by tourism has had on Australia's natural environment.

Positive effects

In its capacity to raise awareness of issues of environmental concern, tourism also has many positive benefits for the physical environment. Encouraging people to see things first-hand is a very effective way of promoting environmental conservation. In this way, the environmentalist movement and the tourism industry have fuelled each other in a beneficial way over the past few decades, which is when tourism started to become much more environmentally friendly. While the environmentalist movement has generated more interest in areas of natural significance and made people want to experience things in real-life situations, tourism has generated more understanding of the beauty of our natural world, which has made people feel more strongly about protecting it. The relationship between environmental conservation and tourism could therefore be described as one of symbiosis, which means they have formed a bond based upon mutual benefit and dependence.


The survival of the tourism industry ultimately depends on its ability to protect the features of the environment which it promotes. As a result of this realisation within the industry, the concept of ecotourism emerged in the 1980s. Ecotourism, also known as nature-tourism, combines tourism with the principles of ecological sustainability, endeavouring to minimise human impacts on the environmental features that form the basis of a tourist attraction. In doing this, ecotourism encourages people to explore places in ways that enhance their appreciation and understanding of the values of a site, without degrading them. It also emphasises the importance of displaying 'cultural sensitivity' when visiting host sites. This helps to reduce the negative social and cultural impacts of tourism by encouraging people to interact with locals and behave in a respectful, responsible manner. See animation 1

Heron Island is an example of an ecotourism destination located on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The University of Queensland runs the Heron Island Research Program on the island and visitors are encouraged to participate in activities organised by the research centre, such as coral-coding, which contribute to the area's ecological well-being. See image 3


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