Cost of Great Barrier Reef bleaching: Aus$1 billion?

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Research released on 20 June by The Australia Institute estimates the tourism industry impacts if severe coral bleaching continues on the Great Barrier Reef. The progressive think-tank warns that continued bleaching could see international and domestic visitors to the region plummet by more than a million people a year. And the visitors most likely to make alternative arrangements are the high-spending Chinese, says the report.

The institute surveyed more than 3,000 Chinese, US and UK visitors, as well as 1,400 domestic tourists. The Great Barrier Reef and the Sydney Harbour Bridge were selected by international respondents as being their top Australian tourist attractions. But the reef is experiencing its most severe bleaching event on record, with an estimated 22 per cent of its coral, mostly in its northern sections, having died. When Australia Institute research asked respondents: “If the Great Barrier Reef continues to experience severe bleaching and some of the reef dies completely, would you be more likely to choose an alternative holiday destination?” many claimed the answer would be ‘yes’.

In 2015, tourism areas along the Great Barrier Reef attracted 2.4 million Australian tourists and 1.1 million international holidaymakers. Two in five international tourists came from the US, UK or China. In 2015, holidaying tourists spent at least Aus$3.3 billion in the Great Barrier Reef tourism areas, supporting the employment of at least 39,000 people. According to international surveys conducted for the new Australia Institute report, the Reef is considered one of the top Australian attractions by 73 percent of potential visitors in China, the UK and USA.

Based on surveys of Chinese, UK, American and domestic tourists, the report suggests that tourism areas adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef risk losing over 1 million visitors per year, worth over Aus$1 billion in tourism expenditure. This expenditure supports around 10,000 tourism jobs in regional Queensland, which are also considered at-risk.

While many potential visitors will seek out other Australian attractions, the research warns that many will choose to not visit Australia at all. Based on polling of China, UK and USA, almost 175,000 people each year from these countries are more likely to visit a country other than Australia if bleaching persists.

“While there has been lots of talk about the potential tourism impacts of coral bleaching, this is the first time anyone has gone to our key tourism markets and asked them what they might do if we aren’t able to better protect the reef,” Executive Director of The Australia Institute, Ben Oquist said.

“The Chinese market is particularly sensitive, with 55% more likely to visit another country. Among Chinese people who travel regularly, this rate is even higher, up to 65%. Chinese tourists are attracted by Australia’s relatively clean environment, so they respond strongly to changes in that perception.”

“Over a third of Americans say they are less likely to visit Australia if bleaching continues. Again, among Americans that travel overseas regularly, this increases to nearly 60 percent.”

“In the UK just over a quarter of people say they are less likely to visit Australia if bleaching continues.”

“This year’s severe coral bleaching would be ‘nearly impossible’ but for climate change. The tourism areas that escaped the worst this year will not be so lucky again.”

Tourism industry representatives have been critical of media coverage of the coral bleaching, arguing it has created an international perception that the reef was dying. And the removal (at the request of the Australian Government) of a section on the Great Barrier Reef in a recent report on the effects of climate change on World Heritage sites made headlines around the world.

The Australia Institute research singles out coal as a leading contributor to climate change, which scientists in turn blame for rising sea temperatures and coral bleaching.

“Four in five people work in service industries, while only 1 per cent work in the coal industry,” the report said. “Policies such as a moratorium on new coal mines can be implemented with a minimal effect on the Queensland economy.”

Access the full press release, and download the report in PDF format, from the Australia Insitute website.

This article was first posted on the CABI website and is republished with permission here.

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