Extreme climate change could put many of Kakadu’s major attractions at risk—from the flooding of Aboriginal rock art to the potential salt water inundation of freshwater wetlands.
In response, researchers from Charles Darwin University’s School for Social and Policy Research (SSPR) have joined a national study to understand what implications climate change could have on Australia’s tourism sector.
Funded by the Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre, the study will use the Top End, the Great Barrier Reef, the Blue Mountains, the Australian Alps and the Barossa Valley as case studies to formulate urgent adaption strategies to help tourist operators and destinations cope with climate change.
Leading the Top End case study, Associate Professor Pascal Tremblay, said that global warming posed considerable long-term economic and environmental risks to Northern Territory tourism.
“We can expect more severe cyclones affecting the Top End. If a category five cyclone like Monica were to make a direct hit on Kakadu, it could wipe out an entire tourist season and have considerable impact on the destination’s market share. It could also take tourism businesses years to fully recover,” Dr Tremblay said.
Scientists are still trying to work out how extreme climate events such as cyclones and sea-level rise will affect the landscape because these phenomena interact with fire management regimes and the spread of invasive species. These, and specific discomfort factors that will affect the tourists’ experience, such as increases in heat and humidity, will be of particular interest to the study.
Dr Tremblay said that Kakadu National Park recently conducted a seminar about the climatic threats to Kakadu’s environment.
“We were told to expect more erratic rain patterns, more intense extreme events, possible changes to the wet and dry season cycles, with on average a lot more days reaching 35 degrees and more.”
Last month, Dr Tremblay joined tourism, community, and environment groups at a climate change workshop where impacts of future climate patterns were considered and adaptation strategies discussed. However, after the meeting Dr Tremblay questioned whether industry was committed or ready to show leadership in addressing future climatic threats.
“In light of the Territory’s unique dependence on tourism, we should be leading the way with watertight disaster management regional strategies and invest in climate change-related adaptations. While government-based visitor organisations and park management seem alerted to the nature and scope of the threats, local tourism industry leadership is sorely lacking,” Dr Tremblay said.
He warned that without a response plan based on integrated climate research, the tourism industry would have difficulty adapting to landscape changes, or coping with major disasters.
“We will never know for sure what the extent of the physical, ecological, marketing and operational impacts of these changes will be – but we cannot wait for all scientists, bureaucrats and tourism stakeholders to reach a consensus on the full extent of those potential impacts before preparing for those possibilities,” he said.
By considering the Kakadu region’s contribution to the Territory economy through tourism, the research will assess the potential threats and economics costs emanating from climate predictions for 2020, 2050, and 2070, and will then develop preliminary region-wide adaptation strategies.
“Due to the importance of Kakadu as a tourism driver, the impacts of changes in tourism demand and supply that could be linked to climate change extend considerably beyond the boundaries of the park, to Top End tourism generally,” Dr Tremblay said.
The research will represent and gather information from a diverse cross-section of tourism stakeholders, including Indigenous and non-Indigenous bodies as well as industry and environmental groups such as Tourism NT, the NLC and the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance.
Dr Tremblay said the research would pave the way for future case studies, and was just one important aspect of the Australian tourism sector’s response to climate change.