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The Future of tourism

One of the strongest visual images of global tourism in 2019, just prior to the devastating images of the pandemic that were to follow,  was the protests by residents in tourism ‘ hot spots’,  expressing anger at the degradation of the liveability of the place they call home. Banners such as ‘Tourists: your luxury trip – my daily misery’, ‘This isn’t tourism – it’s an invasion’ or media headlines such as ‘Irresponsible tourism leaves negative impact on wildlife,’ didn’t mince words, highlighting the frustration felt by residents in locations that too-often found themselves on the ‘Instagrammabl locations’ list.

Tourism is a vital economic sector for many communities, towns, regions and countries. The pandemic painfully exposed that without it, quite simply,  many places would face a grim fate. Job creation, infrastructure enhancement, improvement in basic services, economic diversification, cultural exchange, are but a few of the tourism benefits that foster development. However, the problem that has emerged over the last 10 years in particular, is the realisation that the tourism model currently employed is unsustainable – the model has serious flaws. It is not viable to keep seeing nature and the natural world as ‘ free’ and that tourism can continue ‘extracting’ when nature’s boundaries are finite.

The Great Ocean Road is known and celebrated for its extraordinary natural heritage. Its awe-inspiring natural wonders are heavily promoted in Australia’s international tourism marketing.  Over the years though, the GOR has seen depletion (bio-diversity loss), degradation (coastal erosion and impacts of over-visitation), traffic and parking congestion and heightened risks.

Living within the environmental limits to growth has now started to take place across a number of sectors.  Often billed as sustainable practice and broadly based on the U.N Sustainable Development Goals, actions is taking place around stopping or at least minimizing environmental degradation, social inequalities and cultural erosion.  In tourism, sustainable action is no longer just an option but a cornerstone of responsible place development and ethical stewardship.

Tourism marketing often places little emphasis on the management of tourism visitation. Governance around the number of visitors a community wishes to accept, the management of visitor behaviour, the types of experiences offered to visitors,  the support and revenue protection of local businesses, actions to protect wildlife and water systems etc., are just some of the considerations that underpin a sustainable approach. In this context, some of the ‘production-style tourism’ seen on the GOR requires critical re-evaluation.

Clearly, there is much to do in order to transition. One important and far-reaching question however,  will be whether actions in moving from the old model – ‘an extractive model of tourism’, to sustainable tourism, will be enough to achieve greater balance and create a resilient future for the GOR? Whilst sustainable practices can help overcome further degradation, and as such are critical, a mere reduction in negative effects will likely not be enough. Effort must be made to restore the natural capital, (e.g. the rewilding projects),  empower the local community and build  capacity, revitalize cultural capital  (e.g. stories and tourism experiences – maritime, indigenous, post-war, astronomy) and act to support local businesses, so that GOR tourism drives positive transformation, enhanced visitor experiences and creates the conditions needed for a thriving, resilient existence.

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