Unlocking Our Parks – Where’s the Evidence

It is time to rethink Tasmania’s exploitation of our national parks as a resource for growing the tourism industry, articulated in the state government’s policy of ‘unlocking our parks’ and implemented by the Expressions of Interest (EOI) process for tourism developments in Tasmania’s parks.

The stated aim of the EOI process was to ‘unlock the full potential of these [wilderness] areas’ and to ‘grow the tourism industry’ (Premier Will Hodgman, June 2014).

These words demonstrate the misunderstanding which underlies the ‘unlocking’ policy; they explain why it has caused division in the community and has failed to deliver the promised tourism bonanza. Developments in wilderness are an oxymoron; they do not showcase wilderness, they destroy it, and excessive numbers of visitors, even in the most accessible sections of a national park, detract from the natural experience. ‘Unlocking’ and facilitating ever-increasing numbers of visitors to a few ‘iconic’ locations in our parks is a recipe to undermine the long-term viability of our tourist industry; not to strengthen it.

Many visitor surveys over decades have shown that Tasmania is synonymous with wilderness and the key competitive advantage of our tourism industry is the splendid opportunity to experience wild nature offered by our national parks. The tourism industry acknowledges that Tasmania’s future is as a niche destination, not a mass market one, but protecting the quality of the product rarely takes precedence over growing the industry.

A recent nationwide survey of 1,122 adult Australians, conducted for the non-government National Parks Australia Council, found that 88% of Australians support the traditional rationale for national parks as places to protect nature and for the low key appreciation of nature, and 78% oppose development in parks and protected areas. A separate 2021 survey of a similar number of Australians found that 90% agreed with the proposition that ‘Australia’s remaining wilderness areas should be protected’. Locally, a survey of 600 visitors to Cradle Mountain, conducted in 2021 on behalf of the Parks and Wildlife Service found that 97% of respondents were ‘satisfied’ (89% ‘very satisfied’) with the shuttle bus service and 87% reported that their trip to Cradle Mountain (in its entirety) had ‘met’ or ‘exceeded’ their expectations.

Other evidence of widespread opposition to development within parks comes from the large numbers of representations opposing both the proposed Lake Malbena helicopter-accessed tourism development and the proposed kunanyi (Mount Wellington) commercial development and cable car.

All of these data demonstrate a massive disconnect between public opinion as measured by reputable surveys, and the priorities of the Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania and the state government.

Cradle Mountain provides a revealing example. The 2016 Cradle Mountain Visitor Experience Master Plan led to a new visitor centre which was generally agreed to be necessary and long overdue, but it also gave us a massive viewing shelter (due to open soon) on the site of the former carpark at Dove Lake and proposed a cableway to replace the shuttle bus service. In contrast to the well-researched evidence described above, the ‘market research’ behind the master plan was a survey of mainly interstate residents who were ‘considering visiting Tasmania for a holiday in the next two years’. i.e. a survey mostly of people with little or no actual experience of Cradle Mountain or the options for access to Dove Lake. Yet the state government has chosen to spend millions on the basis of this survey while trying its hardest to ignore other data.

The viewing shelter detracts from the naturalness of Dove Lake and the cableway, should it eventually be constructed, will detract even more. The uncritical implementation of the master plan, which was never anything more than an ambit claim by the local tourism authority, also meant that the opportunity was missed to consider alternatives such as closing and rehabilitating the unsightly carpark.

This is one example of the standard government response to increasing visitor numbers in a park; to build infrastructure to cater for more visitors, with no serious consideration of alternatives or of impacts on the experience visitors are seeking. This is often ‘sold’ as ‘future proofing’ but if visitor numbers continue to double every decade or thereabouts, it won’t be long until another round of ‘future proofing’ is required. We are going to have to draw the line on visitor numbers sometime and we should acknowledge that we may already have passed the threshold where overcrowding in key locations at peak periods is detracting from Tasmania’s reputation.

We need to move beyond the simplistic ‘unlocking’ approach and develop a more nuanced policy that acknowledges and protects the values that attract visitors to Tasmania’s parks in the first place. This requires a strategic, evidence-based approach to planning which prioritises maintaining the integrity of our national parks in the long-term. It must constrain both government-funded overdevelopment and ad hoc consideration of expressions of interest from private enterprise. This was the role of national park management plans before the tourism industry and the state government decided that they knew best.

What will it take to make the state government realise that its ‘unlocking’ policy is compromising the concept of a national park? ‘Unlocking’ has little public support and will diminish Tasmania’s appeal to tourists.

The above opinion piece by TNPA President, Nicholas Sawyer, was first published as a Talking Point in the Hobart Mercury newspaper on 5th March 2022.

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