Responsible tourism in Queensland

Long before Captain Cook first ran the Endeavour aground on Cape Tribulation’s coral, Australia’s Aboriginal peoples were careful custodians of the land, rainforests and reefs here. For the Aboriginals land and culture is intrinsically, inextricably linked. Individuals don’t own land, but instead belong to it, entrusted with the knowledge and responsibility passed down from their ancestors to care for it. But through climate change, coastal development, mining and farming this land – both above and below Queensland’s tropical sea - is threatened. Meanwhile years of colonial oppression and forced evictions have eroded Aboriginal Queenslanders’ culture and rights.

Aboriginal rights

Australia’s indigenous peoples are widely acknowledged to be the custodians of the oldest surviving culture in the world, one rooted in the land, islands and reef through stories, songs and dance. North eastern Queensland is home to Australia’s largest tract of natural rainforest and traditionally the territory of the Jirrbal (a collective term for the six different Aboriginal tribal peoples whose ancestors roamed the Atherton Tablelands), and the Kuku Yalanji (the original custodians of the Daintree), perhaps Australia’s only true rainforest-dwelling Aboriginal groups. For these communities, the vast forests – covering mountains, rocky plateaus and hidden creeks – are not only the resting places of their ancestors since the beginning of time but a store of their knowledge and deep understanding of the natural world.

However, a legacy of inequality still lingers; despite racial discrimination becoming illegal in Australia in 1976, even today Aboriginal children are 24 times more likely to end up in detention centers than their non-Indigenous classmates, and Aboriginal groups are still being forced off their ancestral lands to make way for mining. Groups such as Amnesty International believe that Aboriginal communities, not external parties, are best placed to help ensure indigenous children grow up in environments which nurture their potential, and while slow progress is being made, the Queensland government announced in July 2019 that it will be preparing a path towards greater self-determination for the state’s indigenous people and more representation for indigenous communities in parliament.

What can you do?

In terms of tourism your support for Aboriginal rights can be as simple as choosing tours which utilise the deep knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal guides to bring the rainforests, rivers and coasts of Queensland to life. Aboriginal culture has a profoundly oral tradition, passing along knowledge and beliefs to each new generation through stories, songs, painting and dance. Vacations which embrace and respect the unique Aboriginal heritage will not only bring the forests to life for you - but also give significant value to keeping these oral traditions alive, both in the eyes of local people, and at government level.
You can read more about the issues around Aboriginal people’s rights, and what you can do to help in our Australia travel guide.

Corals in crisis

In summer 2019, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority released its latest five-yearly report on the condition of the world’s largest living structure. The warning was bleak; the future outlook for the reef has deteriorated from ‘poor’ to ‘very poor’ and points the finger at global climate change (alongside farming pollution, coastal development and illegal fishing) as the main threat.

Despite their tough exteriors, corals are fragile organisms which thrive in only very specific conditions. Sensitive to infinitesimal alterations in sea temperature, water quality, light levels and depth, they lack any buffers to weather the havoc wreaked by global climate change, coastal development, pollution and illegal fishing. Of these, global climate change is generally acknowledged by scientists and experts worldwide to be the main culprit for the dying reef.

In 2016 and 2017 the northern sections of the reef were devastated in mass bleaching episodes (where the stressed corals eject the colourful algae that gives them their vibrancy), caused by ‘marine heat waves’ attributed to global warming. If the algae loss lasts too long, the corals risk becoming covered in seaweed – something that the more fragile soft corals can’t endure. Sea level rises – again attributed to global climate change – also continue to stress the reef.

Coral bleaching isn’t necessarily permanent, and the coral can recover if sea temperatures drop and the water is clean – as has been the case with a number of past El Niño events (a naturally occurring blast of warm water that appears every five years or so). However, the impacts have never been as hard-hitting or as long-lasting as recent bleaching events. And if the coral dies, the tiny fish that shelter in it, and feed off it, will die, and the larger fish that depend on those smaller fish die, and so on, and so on. Cue complete ecosystem collapse.
What can you do?
Queensland has its dirty side – the state is the world’s largest seaborne exporter of coal, Australia itself has a relatively high dependency on fossil fuels for energy and in 2016 approvals were given for coal companies to exploit Queensland’s Galilee Basin, one of the largest untapped coal reserves in the world. However, the responsibility for change doesn’t lie solely Down Under; over three-times as much coal is exported as is used domestically and we all need to take a closer look at our own carbon emissions if we don’t want to exceed global climate targets.
It might seem counter-productive – more damaging even - to fly out to visit the Great Barrier Reef when global aviation is one of the fastest growing contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. However, tourism has an important role to play in emphasising the economic value in keeping the reef alive. Pressure from coal companies and coastal developments on policy-makers is intense – and many local communities support the development of fossil-fuel industries as they provide significant employment opportunities. In a world run by economics, the reef must prove its worth if its voice is to be heard.
If you do choose to travel to Australia on your vacation then you should carefully consider what you can do to reduce your carbon emissions as much as possible while you’re there – our film and carbon-curbing tips will help you do this. To make the flight worthwhile stay as long as you can, fly direct where possible, and try to avoid internal flights if you can – some of Australia’s train journeys are a vacation highlight in themselves. Economy seats are lighter, smaller and allow more passengers per flight, and research your airline carefully – choose one with newer aircraft which are more efficient and use less fuel.
Once you do reach the reef don’t touch the corals, purchase any coral souvenirs and do your research to make sure any tour operator, dive specialist or boat operator understands their responsibility to protect the reef (for example adhering to speed limits and only anchoring in designated spots). You’ll also want to use coral-safe sun creams if you’re swimming or snorkelling. Look out for creams that are made without the inclusion of oxybenzone and octinoxate – chemical UV filters that have been shown to damage coral when washed into the surrounding ocean.
Powell Ettinger, from our small ship cruise experts, The Small Cruise Ship Collection explains what measures they take to protect the reef: “We have an on-board naturalist who helps to educate our clients about the reef and its sensitive ecosystem. The ship carries a permit to remove the Crown of Thorns Starfish. One of the most major threats to the reef, the starfish population has boomed to plague proportions and is a significant danger to coral. The present outbreak began in 2010. So far, over 300 000 of the deadly creatures have been culled, with more than 80 reefs patrolled. The ships managers are members of Ecotourism Australia, and an accredited ecotourism operator. They prioritise the long-term conservation of the Reef and its ecosystem.”
Without these protection measures there soon simply won’t be a reef left to visit, marvel at and snorkel over. As the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority says: “The window of opportunity to improve the reef’s long-term future is now.Read more in our Great Barrier Reef travel guide.

Responsible tourism tips

Don’t feed any animals you come across in the wild. Dingoes on Fraser Island, for example have become more aggressive due to increased contact with humans and their food. And don’t touch either – especially corals. Ask before taking photographs of local people – it’s only polite - and be aware that some Aboriginal sites or events may be off-limits to photographers. Respect sacred Aboriginal sites and signs relating to entering Aboriginal lands. If Aboriginal people would prefer you not to clamber up a specific rock to look at the view, then simply don’t climb. Don’t leave any rubbish behind at picnic spots, or in parks, rainforest or on the beach. Limit your plastic use – carry pack away tote bags instead of plastic bags and use a refillable water bottle. To hungry sea turtles, plastic bags floating in the water resemble jellyfish, their favourite food, sea birds feed chicks colourful plastic pieces and micro plastics accumulate in the marine food chain. Be aware that bush fires can occur at any time – even in the humid Queensland forests. In September 2019 some of the biggest fires ever seen ravaged Lamington National Park as a result of gusting winds and unprecedentedly dry conditions. Only ever use designated BBQ pits and grills, don’t leave glass lying around and make sure cigarettes are fully extinguished with water – just for starters.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Robert Linsdell] [Aboriginal traditions: Ian Cochrane] [Bleached coral reefs: Robert Linsdell] [Crown-of-Thorns starfish: Ryan McMinds]