As part of their master in Tourism Destination Management study program, the students have written literature reviews in the domain of “International Tourism Context”. In this fourth of six literature reviews Stefanie Huebner talks about effects of global warming and tourism on the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland


Ruhanen (2008) identifies an increasing need to adapt the principles of sustainability in tourism development planning and management. More destinations are facing severe ecological, economical and socio-cultural threats and entering a stage of no return (Conservation International, 2003). Given this critical situation, awareness of the stakeholders is important. These stakeholders include “any group or individual who can affect, or is affected by the achievement of a corporation’s purpose” (Friedmann, 2006).

The natural environment of a destination and the climate conditions are essential drivers, influencing the choice (Becken & Hay, 2007), suitability and the unique charm of a tourism destination (Dwyer & Kim, 2003). The effects of global warming are strongly connected to visitor behavior. Sensitive ecosystems are vulnerable to global warming and the human impacts from visitors and locals.

Dwyer (2007) claims that impacts of global warming and tourism are constantly increasing. Conservation International (2003) considers tourism to be an opportunity for conserving nature and a threat if it is done improperly.

The effects of global warming as well as the immense rising number of visitors threaten the social, economic and cultural value to the people of Australia (GBRMPA, 2012).

The Great Barrier Reef, faces the threat of global warming. This is mainly caused by greenhouse gases as a result of human activity, leading to an increase of the sea temperatures and impacting upon coral reefs (WWF, 2004). Statistics show that the Great Barrier Reef will lose 95% of its living coral by 2050 (New Scientist, 2004).

The lack of awareness of visitors and locals, visible in unsustainable reef use, has a severe impact on the survival of the reef (GBRMPA, 2012).

Only little attention is given to other causes of depletion of the Great Barrier Reef such as cyclones  or the crown-of-thorns starfish overpopulation (Brodie, Fabricius, De’ath, Okaji).

In this literature review I discuss the different causes for the depletion of sensitive areas, using the example of the Great Barrier Reef. Solutions for sustainable management and preservation need to be considered on both global and national level.

Literature review

Impacts on destinations – the need for sustainable tourism

The principles of sustainable tourism are “the key to achieving an acceptable balance between the positive and negative impacts of tourism” (Mill & Morrison, 2009, p.59). Sustainable Tourism intends to minimize the negative effect of tourism development and contributes to conservation and community development (Conservation International, 2003, p.5). Conservation International states infrastructure related developments, methods of access and treatment facilities directly impact biodiversity hotspots (2003, p.25). Cocossis (1996) claims that tourism can revitalize and destroy at the same time and Orams & Hill (1998) add that tourism brings significant economic advantages to natural areas, whilst it causes adverse social and cultural changes, and damages natural environments (Van Treeck & Schuhmacher, 1998).

Moreover, involvement of all stakeholder interests and objectives is salient in tourism policy-setting and planning to reduce effects on tourism and achieve sustainability (Mill & Morrison, 2009; Getz, 2005; Byrd, 2007). A sustainable approach to tourism adopts a long-term planning horizon, acknowledges the cumulative impacts of development decisions and is proactive (Ritchie, 1999).

Dwyer (2009) identifies climate change, natural resource depletion and loss of biodiversity as the main environmental trends. Moreover Peeters, Szimba & Duijnisveld (2007) point out that climate change is the biggest environmental issue.

In addition Ruhanen (2004) underpins tourism planning is vital to offset negative impacts of tourism on destinations.

Climate change impacts on destinations

Climate change and increasing world temperatures directly affect environmental resources major for tourism business. Extreme climate events, such as the tropical cyclones in Australia, are deterrents to tourists and destroy the ecosystem (Pham, Simmons, & Spurr 2010).

The earth’s atmosphere is getting warmer. Sea levels increased by 10 to 25cm since the late 19th century and the average global temperature has risen by 0.3° to 0.6° in the same period (EUHOFA, IH&RA, UNEP, 2001).

Even though global warming is a natural atmospheric feature, human industrial activities are considerably increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and enhance the natural greenhouse effect (EUHOFA,IH&RA and UNEP, 2001; Dwyer, 2007).

Tourism is a recipient and an indirect but significant contributor to global warming and climate change (Gössling, 2002; Pham, Simmons, & Spurr 2010), as the industry is a motivator of travel and transport and a significant user of energy. Transport and accommodation cause the burning of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases and determine climate change and rises of sea temperatures.

This issue can only be tackled at an international level. The Kyoto Protocol set an important step towards the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (WWF, 2004).

Human impacts on destinations

Visitor behavior has other severe impacts on destinations biodiversities. As an example reefs are often damaged by the activities of careless tourists – as divers and snorkelers kick and stand on coral, boats scrape the surface of the reef, boat anchors are thrown into corals, and local entrepreneurs often break off pieces of coral to sell as souvenirs (Conservation International, 2003, p. 7).

Whereas human use of natural areas, such as reefs, is increasing, visitors know very little about the vulnerability of the environment they enter (Falton, 1998).

The effects of global warming and tourism on the great barrier reef

The Great Barrier Reef, a designated World Heritage Site for its unique ecosystem, faces the threat of depletion (GBRMPA, 2012).

Coral Reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef are at a particular risk from unplanned tourism development. Holden notes that, as well as being mined for building materials, reefs suffer from sewage runoff that stimulates the growth of algae, covering the filter-feeding corals and hindering their ability to survive (Conservation International, 2003; Holden, 2000).

Climate change is now acknowledged as one of the most serious threats to the long-term health of coral reefs. Around the world, coral bleaching has effectively destroyed over 50% of reefs. This loss of corals, triggered by unusually high sea temperatures, has far-reaching impacts on reef ecosystems (Australian Government, 2007; Great Barrier Marine Park Authority, 2007).

Therefore, the Australian Government is already recognized internationally as a leader in protecting coral reefs from the impacts of climate change.

According to the Australian Government (2007) climate change is not the only threat to the Reef, but also degraded water quality, unsustainable reef use by visitors and unsustainable fishing. The future health of the Reef depends on two major factors: the rate and extent of climate change, and the resilience of the Reef ecosystem to climate change.

Brodie, Fabricius, De’ath and Okaji (2005) add that the outbreak of the crown-of-the thorns starfish damaged the reef over the last 40 years. The government itself mentioned three possible causes for the overpopulation of the starfish which can still neither be confirmed nor disproved. It is assumed that the overpopulation in crown-of-thorns starfish population is either a natural phenomenon, or an effect of the removal of their natural predators, or caused by a higher nutrient concentration in the sea due to human activity, leading to increased food for the crown-of-thorn starfish (CRC Reef Research Center, 2003).

Coral bleaching affected over 50% of reefs and seabird nesting failures were observed (Zeppel, 2011). Even though, as it is,  it is predicted that the Great Barrier Reef looses 95% of its living coral by 2050, some researcher’s find the claims are exaggerated (New Scientist, 2004). The problems of the Great Barrier Reef need to be solved on global and national levels. Climate change is a matter for international policy whereas the resilience of the Reef is managed by local strategies (Australian Government, 2007; Great Barrier Marine Park Authority, 2007).

Current strategies to maintain and restore resilience to the Great Barrier Reef include the Zoning Plan and the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan. In addition the Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Action Plan set up strategies for direct actions and partnerships to increase the long-term resilience of the GBR to climate change. It concentrates on science and resilient measures and aims the adaption of industries and communities to reduce the climate footprint (Australian Government, 2007; Great Barrier Marine Park Authority, 2007).

The death of the GBR is not only a catastrophe in itself; it is a crisis of different kind. This crisis will deplete the icon tourism attraction of Australia and cause severe economic and social impacts. The GBR supports a wealth of recreational opportunities, thousands of jobs, and industries worth $6.9 billion dollars annually (Coghlan, 2011). Cooper, Fletcher, Fyall, Gilbert, and Wanhill state tourism delivers social-well being for coastal communities (2005, p.762.).

Existing gap in research

Current research, however, showed the lack of effectiveness in all stakeholder actions towards a recovering of the reef. The conservation programs of the Great Barrier Reef concentrate on the improvement of water quality and unsustainable fishing (Australian Government, 2007).

None of the stakeholders showed enough consideration for the two actual threats: One is the impact of cyclones and the other is the immense spread of the crown-of-thorns starfish.

Different newspaper articles claim that 48% of the corals die due to storms and other 42% through the starfishes (Spiegel, 2012; Focus, 2012). For the last 22 years the reef was unable to produce new corals and lost 1,45% of its corals per year (Spiegel, 2012).

The sustainable approach and all stakeholders measures to date concentrate on environmental impacts on the reef and the involvement of the local people (Cooper, Fletcher, Fyall, Gilbert, & Wanhil, 2005, p.762).

Global warming and climate change, however, are only responsible for about 10% of the corals death (Spiegel, 2012). The Great Barrier Reef would be able to recover from natural storms and adapt itself to higher sea temperatures and acid sea water (Spiegel,2012; Focus, 2012).

Although the outbreak of the crown of thorns starfish has been big issue on the Great Barrier Reef and other Indo-Pacific reefs for nearly 40 years (Reichelt and Bradbury, 1990; Seymour and Bradbury, 1992), it has not been considered as a main reason for the death of the corals in any of the management plans for the reef (Great Barrier Marine Park Authority, 2007; CRC, 2003). The outbreak of the starfish remains a controversial issue as only little research has been done to detect the key trigger (Brodie, Fabricius, De’ath,Okaji, 2005).

Call to action

Human beings are unable to stop the forces of nature such as cyclones. These can only be reduced by successful measures to slow down global warming (Gössling, 2002).

The only possibility to save the Great Barrier Reef, however, is the removal of the crown-of-thorns starfish. Therefore it is necessary to monitor the populations and develop more effective methods to control the crown-of-thorns starfish in the nearby future. All possible causes for the outbreak need to be investigated by the Australian Government and the GBRNPR.

The reef urgently has to increase its natural balance to slow down the spread of the seastars (Spiegel, 2012). There is a need of immediate action against crown-of-thorns populations to save the Great Barrier Reef and remain a spectacular world wonder and World Heritage Site for our future generations.


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