The tourism industry is important for the Australian economy, comprising approximately 3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014–15 (Productivity Commission 2015). It contributes more than $47 billion and more than 550,000 jobs to the Australian economy (2014–15), and growth in this sector is more than 3 times the growth of the total economy (ABS 2016). Australia accommodates more than 6.9 million international (Tourism Research Australia 2015a) and 87.1 million domestic (Tourism Research Australia 2015b) overnight visitors each year, which account for 72 per cent and 28 per cent of tourism GDP, respectively (ABS 2016). A large proportion of tourism is based on the coast, where most of Australia’s major cities and tourist hotspots are located. Tourism at the Great Barrier Reef, for example, attracts approximately $5.2 billion per year (Deloitte Access Economics 2013).
Beaches are the most popular coastal attractions for visitors. Popular nature activities and attractions include bushwalking and rainforest walking, whale and dolphin watching, scuba diving, snorkelling, botanic and public gardens, national and state parks, and wildlife parks, zoos and aquariums (Figure COA3). Recreational fishing is also a major drawcard for some areas (see Fishing).
Some tourism impacts, such as influxes of tourists arriving on cruise ships, are localised and sporadic, whereas others, such as camping and recreational fishing, are dispersed along the coast and occur seasonally or year round. High-quality quantitative data on recreational activities have only been gathered in a few locations (e.g. Ningaloo Marine Park, Box COA1; Smallwood et al. 2011), and disentangling cause and effect of impacts is complex because of many co-occurring pressures (Smallwood et al. 2012).
Pressures associated with tourism include human trampling, removal of flora and fauna, debris, damage or compaction by 4WD vehicles, development or pollution associated with transport, and infrastructure and development to support tourists. The magnitude of the pressures is often linked to access. Accessible areas can have high visitor numbers but low per-person impact, whereas remote areas are generally visited by small numbers of 4WD users who impose different types of pressures. Retirees who travel independently for extended periods are an important component of tourism in remote areas (Onyx & Rosemary 2005), such as the Kimberley region.
Ecotourism is a significant and growing sector of the tourism industry, and provides a way to reconcile tourism and conservation (Weaver 2001). By marketing natural values, ecotourism can maintain the aesthetic appeal of coastal tourist areas while deriving economic value, and simultaneously produce environmental benefits. However, although ecotourism is often touted as a win–win model, tourism development and conservation can have conflicting interests, resulting in compromises that lead to some level of environmental impact (e.g. Higgins-Desbiolles 2011).
Looking forward, pressures associated with tourism are expected to increase with population growth and coastal development, particularly near urban centres. Climate change is predicted to shift the distribution of tourism southwards, as the northern parts of Australia become increasingly unpleasant during warmer months (Amelung & Nicholls 2014).