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Thursday 18 August 2016 | Published in Regional


AUSTRALIA – In a reversal of the normal travel bucket list, tourists are rushing to see the Great Barrier Reef before it dies, the Guardian reports.

The newspaper says half of the reef’s coral has disappeared in the past three decades due to a combination of warming ocean temperatures, coastal development, invasive starfish and agricultural runoff.

A survey published this week in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism found 69 per cent of tourists had been driven by a sense of urgency to see Australia’s coral icon while there was still time.

This year, the reef has experienced its worst bleaching event on record.

A huge underwater heatwave, which has killed off coral across the globe, has affected 93 per cent of the reefs along the 2300km natural wonder.

In the northern and central sections, almost half the coral has been bleached so intensely and for so long that it will not recover, according to scientists.

“Our research suggests that the ailing health of the Great Barrier Reef has in fact given tourists a new reason to visit, albeit one that doesn’t exactly promise a long-term future,” authors Annah Piggott-McKellar and Dr Karen McNamara of the University of Queensland wrote in an opinion article on August 15.

“Some media outlets and tourism operators have sought to downplay the effects, presumably to try to mitigate the impact on tourism,” they said. “The industry provides roughly 65,000 jobs and contributes more than A$5 billion a year to the Australian economy.

“When we surveyed hundreds of GBR tourists last year, 69 per cent of them said they had opted to visit the reef “before it is gone” – and that was before the latest bleaching generated fresh international headlines about its plight.”

Reef visitors were asked to choose between 15 reasons for their trip.

“To see the reef before it is gone” was the fourth strongest motivator, after “to discover new places and things”, “to rest and relax; and “to get away from the demands of everyday life”.

Corbin Forest, a Texan student who visited the reef in June while studying in Australia, said he had never heard of bleaching specifically but was aware the reef was in danger.

“I had just heard for years that “it’ll be gone sometime this century”, “it’s being polluted”, “tourism is killing it”. So I figured I needed to make sure I saw it before it disappeared in case any of that ended up being true,” Forest sasid.

The most recent major assessment of reef health found that unless radical cuts are made to global carbon emissions, ocean conditions would become so warm that bleaching will occur on the reef every year by the middle of the century.

Reef scientists believe that this would be the end of the ecosystem.

This has lead some tour operators, including Australia’s national airline Qantas, to use “last-chance tourism” as a marketing tool. Time Magazine listed the reef as one of 10 “amazing places to visit before they vanish”.

Reef tour operators have reacted vociferously to media coverage of the bleaching event, which they deem to be damaging to their business prospects.

One business leader has called it a “great white lie”. Earlier this year, the Australian government and Unesco were left red-faced when it was discovered they had removed the Great Barrier Reef from a scientific report on the threat climate change posed to world heritage sites.

The Australian government explained that it had been concerned about negative impacts on tourism.

But it may be that in the short term, the threat has played a role in a mini-tourism boom. The University of Queensland survey was conducted in 2015, before the bleaching event had struck.

“This raises another question,” said Piggott-McKellar and McNamara. “Is there a threshold beyond which the Great Barrier Reef is seen as “too far gone” to visit? If so, might future more frequent or severe bleaching episodes take us past that threshold?”

“The only thing that is certain is that more needs to be done to ensure this critical ecosystem can survive, so that tourists who think this is the last chance to see it can hopefully be proved wrong.”

- The Guardian/PNC