A View from Abroad: Don't Let Tourism Overwhelm Our National Parks

Bald Rock National Park in northern New South Wales, Australia. Photo by Cas Liber via Wikipedia.

Are our national parks in need of a facelift to attract tourist dollars? Should our wild places be better at catering to those wanting some luxury and pampering?

Sound typical of the debate over how the National Park System is caught between various masters? Well, this issue was raised most recently not here in the United States but way "down under" in Australia by the executive officer of the National Parks Association of New South Wales. Since there are similar concerns here in the United States, we thought it'd be interesting to share some of Mr. Andrew Cox's views, which were published recently in the Green Left Weekly. With that introduction, here are his thoughts:


Are our national parks in need of a facelift to attract the tourist dollar? Should our wild places be better at catering for those wanting some luxury and pampering?

If you talk to some in the tourist industry, they would strongly agree. And the NSW government right now is blithely playing along with this.

Brand "National Park" is the ultimate advertisement for the modern day resort owner. What better edge on the competitors to claim your five-star lodge is in the heart of Wollemi National Park and its mysterious wilderness?

We don't need to pawn off our crown jewels. Brand National Park belongs to all of us, not those who can afford it, or have the right political connections to lever their snug cabins with soft downy pillows and beds deep inside the park boundaries.

The NSW government says it wants to see more people visiting our national parks and other public parks and reserves. They are aiming for a 20% increase over the next 10 years in fact.

That is an admirable goal, and it is highly achievable.

Yet the tourism industry is not interested in plain numbers. Not mum and dad and the family having a fun walk or a picnic in a national park. No, they are interested in development prospects.

Strangely, the NSW government has started to adopt many of the industry positions.

On the table are a number of ideas to white-ant the very laws that have to date largely kept the national parks unspoilt by crass development.

There is a plan to write "tourism" into national park legislation. At present, "visitation" is there in the legislation as a legitimate purpose. But that isn't enough. It doesn't allow enough of the trappings of tourism - the hotels and chalets, the bars, the trinket shops, spas and saunas, the golf courses and swimming pools and cinemas - to get past first base.

Of course the Kosciuszko ski resorts are the exception, where this has already come to pass. Let's hope that this park remains the only exception.

Tourism does not belong in national parks. National parks are only part of the tourism experience. When you visit a park, absorb yourself in nature, learn something about the complex ecology you are passing through, or get the thrill from climbing a peak, you experience national parks at their best.

National parks offer a special tourist experience, but not the full range of tourist experiences. The extra bits of a tourist's time in an area - the accommodation, the fun parks, evening entertainment, restaurants and takeaway joints - belong in the neighbouring towns.

This is where they will generate the most jobs, have the lowest environmental impacts and best spread the benefits.

...

By all means, let's encourage more people to visit our national parks. Not only is it good for our health, our sanity and our understanding of our place in the natural world, it will help the parks. How can the next generation of people understand what is worth protecting if they have not seen it.

If our children go into a national park and see less of nature and more of the trappings of our urban life, we will have lost something that is priceless. Let's not allow our national parks to become gentrified. For then they will no longer be national parks.

Comments

It seems our perception of wilderness changes as we become more and more urbanized and we are removed farther and farther from the wild as we become overly dependent upon technologies. To someone raised in the city a farm wood lot may seem like wilderness. I have been to the Grand Canyon several times. I have stayed in a hotel on the rim and have hiked and camped several times in the canyon. The last time I just had a couple of hours and could only visit a few viewpoints on the rim. It was disappointing. While I saw the canyon, I did not experience the canyon. i feel that is true for most visitors. I was told by a ranger that the average visit to the canyon was two hours and the time actually spent looking at the canyon was fifteen minutes. The rest of the time is in gift shops, places to eat, etc. The canyon is just one goal on a checklist. Been there done that. The comforts and luxuries available on the rim seem somewhat incongruent with the true story of the grand Canyon. I now live near Denali Park. There are many ways to experience the park. Guests can backpack in wilderness areas and never see another person. They could travel deep into the park and stay several days in one of the rustic lodges. Or they could be park of the concessionaires quick and crowded tours. I have done all three. Most guests are at the mercy of the companies that are more concerned about making a dollar than truly providing an experience that shares the ecology, history and mystery of the park. One tour goes only 17 miles into this immense wilderness environment and returns guest to gift shops, dining rooms and other places to spend money. The strip outside of Denali has become an eyesore full of expanding hotels and all that accompany them. Most visitors spend more time here than in the park. The park has become secondary and just a lure to get people to spend and spend. There has been talk of trying to build larger luxury hotels deep in the park--not to enable a greater park experience but as new way to get those with the bucks to spend to spend. People will come. people will spend and will feel they have had a wilderness experience--an experience dependent upon comfort and convenience. Thus what we view as wild is degraded. Thus we will continue to bring urban values into the wilds of our parks.
Unfortunately it is all about money. The wilderness can provide physical, spiritual, psychological, biological gifts to those who give up the urban and meet the wilderness on its terms. But this does not bring in much in the way of dollars. These values are sacrificed. The experiences offered by most businesses associated with parks is to see how many we can get in and not the quality of the experience. I appreciate those companies that offer true encounters with the wild in the wilderness parks. Unfortunately they are relatively few and usually unable to compete with the large corporate entities. The parks and becoming little more than insignificant backdrops to a vacation of catered luxury.

I really like this article from Australia. I especially like this part:

National parks offer a special tourist experience, but not the full range of tourist experiences. The extra bits of a tourist's time in an area - the accommodation, the fun parks, evening entertainment, restaurants and takeaway joints - belong in the neighbouring towns.

This is where they will generate the most jobs, have the lowest environmental impacts and best spread the benefits.

This is brilliant, and something so often neglected in the comments on NPT. The communities around the parks really need to be able to benefit from park tourism. Those who advocate more "touristy" parks should take this track instead: let the surrounding communities do the touristy stuff, and leave the parks themselves as unscathed as possible.

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My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com