Should I still visit the reef?
The greatest danger to the reef from tourism is negligence – snorkellers and divers may damage the reef as they swim over it, knocking pieces off with their fins.
However, overall, tourism helps the reef more than it hinders it. Right now, 80 percent of visitors are taken to an area that covers just 7 percent of the reef – mostly to the south where coral bleaching has been less severe – and every visitor has to pay an Environmental Management Charge (EMC).
Launched in November 2017, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef is a huge social movement that intends to unite the world to save the reef. Their CEO, Andy Ridley, says that “tour operators are not the villains. The tourism sector is one of the strongest guardians of the reef”. In a politically challenging setting where environmentalists battle with industrialists against the new coal mines planned in Queensland, tourism is vital in terms of the funding it provides and the pressure that it puts on the government to preserve it.
Fred Nucifora, Director of Reef HQ Aquarium and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, believes that it is climate change, not tourism that “is the biggest issue facing the Great Barrier Reef”.
The balance is a difficult one to get right. Some destinations, such as Koh Tachai island in Thailand, , maintaining that visitors accelerate coral bleaching. But without the economic support generated by tourism to fund research, there can be little advancement in finding a solution to the greater threat.
So, how can I visit sustainably?
The key to visiting the reef sustainably is in selecting the right tour operator. The standard of operators across the reef are highly scrutinised and accreditation is based on the standards to which the operators adhere – so always do your homework before you go.
The best are those that have been awarded Advanced Ecotourism levels such as Reef Magic cruises in Cairns, in Port Douglas and Tall Ship Adventures in the Whitsundays. If you want to check that an operator is up to scratch, the Australian government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has put together a comprehensive list of high standard tourism operators.
Another way to help is to get involved in the Eye on the Reef programme, which invites all visitors to collect information about the health of the reef. It even has a handy app where you can upload pictures of what you spot and where, meaning that tabs can easily be kept on the location of pests like the Crown-of-thorns starfish, marine pollution and rare marine animals.
What does the future of the reef look like?
“The reef is not dead, and we should not give up on it” maintains Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef's Andy Ridley. Marine biologists and scientists have not given up hope that the reef can recover and are continually looking for ways to reverse the affects of coral bleaching.
Just a few months ago, in September 2017, Johnny Gaskell, Daydream Island's 'Living Reef' marine biologist, made a huge discovery. He noticed a deep blue circle on Google maps off the coast of the Whitsundays and set off to investigate. What he discovered was remarkable. Sheltered inside the protective walls of a deep lagoon were huge, undamaged colonies of Staghorn and Birdsnest corals.
“This is extremely important for the ecology of the reef, as the healthy corals in the lagoon will play a big role during this year's coral spawning,” says Gaskell. “Recolonisation to other areas will be the key to the ongoing resilience of the reef. The good news is, there is still so much colour and beauty out there.”
Learn more about the Great Barrier Reef with The Rough Guide to Australia. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.