1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2003  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/01/2003   
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Sustainable tourism in Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

This article was contributed by Hilary Skeat of the Tourism and Recreation Section in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

About the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef off Queensland’s east coast is an international tourism icon. It is made up of about 2,900 unconnected coral reefs, stretching over 2,000 km from south of Papua New Guinea to Bundaberg. There are also about 900 islands within the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is a massive formation and is the only living structure that can be seen from the moon - astronauts describe it as ‘a thin white line in the blue ocean’. The living reefs of today have grown since the last Ice Age 8,000 years ago. All the sandy islands within the Great Barrier Reef are less than about 6,000 years old.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest, most complex and diverse coral reef system in the world. It is home to over 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of coral and many rare and endangered species. The area supports one of the largest dugong populations in the world and is an important breeding and feeding ground for whales and dolphins. Six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles can also be found there.

Complementing the Reef’s natural wonders is a rich cultural heritage. For thousands of years, this unique marine environment has been central to the social, economic and spiritual life of nearby coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed as a World Heritage area in 1981 in recognition of its natural significance. It is the largest World Heritage area ever established. Under the World Heritage Convention, Australia has an international obligation to protect, conserve, present and transmit this magnificent area for all future generations.

Map S22.1 shows the boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and the World Heritage area.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is a marine protected area which includes almost all of the Great Barrier Reef. It encompasses an area of about 345,400 square kilometres, commencing at the tip of Cape York and extending along the Queensland coast to just north of Bundaberg. The Marine Park includes all of the marine environment below low water mark, except for a small number of exclusions around major shipping ports.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is a protected area with a difference. While protection of the area and its values is the principal aim, a range of commercial and extractive activities is undertaken within the Marine Park. The major uses include tourism, commercial and recreational fishing, and shipping.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, a Commonwealth government agency, is responsible for ensuring that this multiple use Marine Park is used sustainably and is preserved for future generations. It is also the lead agency responsible for ensuring that Australia’s obligations under the World Heritage Convention are met.

Source: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

History of tourism use

The earliest instance of organised tourism on the Great Barrier Reef was in the 1890s when Green Island became a destination for pleasure cruises offshore of Cairns. By the 1930s tourism resorts had begun to develop at Green Island and at Heron Island further south. During the first half of the 20th century, most tourist activity was inshore and close to regional centres, being limited by vessel technology and poor transport links to southern capitals.

During the 1960s and 1970s there was steady growth in visitor numbers, particularly at Green Island and in the Whitsundays. By the end of the 1970s new, faster vessels extended the range of a day trip to the Reef to between 15 and 20 nautical miles.

Reef tourism grew rapidly in the 1980s and early 1990s, assisted by improved air access to a number of regional centres (including an international airport in Cairns) and improved road transport links. In the early 1980s visitor numbers to the Marine Park were increasing by about 30% per year. There was also a steady growth in the number of operations over this time, and the capacity, range and diversity of products offered expanded markedly. High-speed modern vessels extended the range of a day trip to the reef to over 50 nautical miles.

Tourism today

Tourism is now the largest commercial activity in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Generating over $1b per annum, the marine tourism industry is a major contributor to the local and Australian economies.

About 1.6 million tourists now visit the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park each year. This number has remained relatively static since the mid 1990s. About 85% of tourists visit the Marine Park in the area offshore of Cairns and in the Whitsundays, a combined area of less than 10% of the Marine Park.

There are approximately 730 tourism operators and 1,500 vessels and aircraft permitted to operate in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. About 60% of these permitted operators are actively undertaking a tourism operation in the Marine Park.

There is a diverse range of tourism operations catering to the differing needs of visitors to the Great Barrier Reef. However the basis of any trip to the Reef is usually nature-based activities focused on the coral and other marine life. Activities typically include: snorkelling; scuba diving; fishing; excursions in glass-bottomed boats and semi-submersible vessels; and learning about the marine environment.

The marine tourism industry plays an important role in presenting the World Heritage area to a wide range of visitors. In fact, for many visitors to coastal Queensland, the tourism fleet is their primary means of experiencing the Great Barrier Reef and learning about its World Heritage values.

Managing tourism use of the Great Barrier Reef

Keeping the Barrier Reef ‘Great’ for future generations requires the cooperative effort of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, other government agencies, the marine tourism industry and other stakeholders. By working together, the diversity, integrity and productivity of the Great Barrier Reef can be maintained and the impacts of all activities in the Marine Park can be minimised. The goal is to provide for the protection, wise use, understanding and enjoyment of the Great Barrier Reef in perpetuity.

In managing tourism use of the Marine Park, particular attention is given to:
  • protecting coral reefs and other habitats such as seagrass from anchor damage, poor diving practices, waste disposal, reef walking and collecting
  • protecting turtles and seabirds from disturbance, especially during nesting seasons

respecting the cultural importance of the Great Barrier Reef to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
  • minimising conflicts in access within this multiple use Marine Park
  • informing the community about the Great Barrier Reef and its World Heritage values
  • encouraging the adoption of best practices within tourism operations
  • assisting the marine tourism industry to contribute to management initiatives and monitoring programs.

Fundamental to management is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 (Cwlth). Its regulations provide the framework for the establishment, care and ongoing management of the Marine Park. There is also a reef-wide system of zoning which defines in broad terms a set of management objectives for each zone along with a description of what activities, especially extractive activities, may or may not take place, including those that require a permit. Permits are required for all tourism activities in the Marine Park. It is through these permits that the activities that may be undertaken by each operator are defined and any necessary conditions described.

Management issues relating to tourism use of a specific region can be further addressed through plans of management. Such plans have been developed for the Cairns Area and Whitsundays (the two major tourism nodes in the Marine Park). These plans are designed to manage:
  • environmental protection of these high-use sites
  • separation of different uses
  • resolution of conflicting use
  • limiting use where necessary.

Tourism use is also managed on a finer scale through specific management initiatives for popular reefs and bays. Here the focus is on localised issues, and any plans and management strategies are developed in close consultation with local users.

A set of best practices has been developed to guide the activities of tourism operators and visitors in the Marine Park. Many of the tourism associations have developed voluntary codes of conduct to ensure that their members’ operations are sustainable. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority communicates information about management requirements and sustainable use through a range of quality information products and training opportunities.

Increasingly, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is recognising the important role the marine tourism industry plays in presenting the area to the general public and its potential to work in partnership with managers to achieve best practice, sustainable use of the Marine Park. Through working cooperatively with the marine tourism industry, we aim to ensure a sustainable and vibrant future for tourism on the Great Barrier Reef.


Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 2000, Tourism Operator’s Handbook for the Great Barrier Reef, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville.

Harriott V (in press), Marine Tourism Impacts and their Management on the Great Barrier Reef, CRC Reef Research Centre Technical Report No. 46, CRC Reef Research Centre, Townsville.

Ilett A, Aiello R, Power M, Recchia C & Saunders L 2000, 'The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area - Ecotourism in the world’s largest marine protected area’, in T Charters & K Law (eds), Best Practice Ecotourism in Queensland, Tourism Queensland, Brisbane, pp. 65-80.

Ilett A, Skeat H, Thomas C, Bonanno V & Green E (in press), Managing Tourism Sustainably - lessons learned on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, Proceedings of the Ninth Meeting of the International Coral Reef Symposium, Bali.

Kenchington R 1991, 'Tourism development on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park’, Ocean and Shoreline Management, 15:57-78.