Dove Lake, Cradle Mtn - Lk St Clair National Park. Photo: Grant Dixon

Cradle Mountain cable car – appropriate planning sidelined again?

Speaking in the electorate of Braddon recently, Labour Party Opposition Leader Rebecca White promised to part-fund the construction of a cable car at Cradle Mountain, pledging up to $30 million if the ALP wins the forthcoming state election. Just two weeks later, on 14th December 2017, the Tasmanian Liberal government promised a similar amount to facilitate construction of such a cable car if they were re-elected. This seems is a silly bidding war for votes ignoring both common sense and due process.

What are Tasmania’s major political parties thinking of? Both have now endorsed an extremely expensive proposal, with the potential to change Cradle Mountain forever, without any serious consideration of consequences, alternatives, or financial viability! The cable car idea originated in 2016, in the Cradle Mountain Visitor Experience Master Plan, which predicted that the cable car would generate a substantial increase in visitor numbers. This audaciously-titled document states that the demand forecast was based on an online survey, mainly of interstate residents who were considering visiting Tasmania for a holiday in the next 2 years. i.e. a survey of people with little or no actual experience of Cradle Mountain or the options for access to Dove Lake. This survey might be enough to justify further investigation of the proposal but as the basis for the endorsement of a proposal estimated by the proponents to cost $60-70 million, it is laughable.

Despite the title, development of the Master Plan did not involve broad public consultation, neither did it start to address any of the issues required to gain approval – the usual functions of a plan. The Master Plan on which both the state ALP and Liberal Party are now basing their election promises is more accurately described as a vision drawn up for the tourism industry by marketing consultants who appear to have very little idea of what really motivates people to visit national parks. Nevertheless, subjected to a reality check, it has prompted some positive outcomes. Work is underway on replacing the visitor centre, but thankfully with a less grandiose structure than proposed in the Master Plan, and increasing the capacity of the road to Dove Lake by using larger shuttle buses. This will provide breathing space to allow for further and full consideration of the all Cradle Mountain access issues in a proper planning context and with necessary public consultation.

Surveys consistently identify wilderness and nature among visitors’ top priorities and there are few places anywhere in the world that offer better opportunities for the short-term visitor to experience wild nature than Cradle Mountain. But experiencing wild nature is not compatible with ever-increasing numbers of visitors attracted by the opportunity to ride in a cable car. It is the time to pause and consider what sort of experience we want to provide. Is it in the best interests of both visitors and the environment to merely maximise visitor numbers or do we want to provide for the visitors who really appreciate what Tasmania has to offer? This is just good marketing principles. You identify the strengths that distinguish you from the competition and build on them; not the opposite!

At Cradle Mountain, the replacement of the current shuttle bus fleet with larger buses is underway. This will provide sufficient additional capacity for several years. Meanwhile, a Transportation Strategy has been commissioned to seriously consider all options for access to Dove Lake. Let’s wait for the outcome of a credible study before rushing to endorse one particular solution to a supposed problem in no immediate need of a solution.

We desperately need an informed debate about the future direction of Tasmania’s nature-based tourism industry, and a proper statutory planning process to ensure due consideration of all proposals.

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