National Parks and private enterprise
25 Aug 2011
Associate Professor Sue Beeton and Dr Warwick Frost
This opinion was originally published in the National Times August 25, 2011.
A recent draft report by the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission being considered by the Baillieu government is proposing to "unlock" Victoria's national parks by allowing a wide range of commercial tourism developments to tap into unmet demand and deliver big economic benefits.
Just over 10 years ago, such rhetoric led to the building of the Seal Rocks Sea Life Centre at Phillip Island National Park. This groundbreaking public-private venture ultimately led the private operator to sue the Victorian government and win.
The cost to the taxpayers was $55.9 million, quite the opposite of what the venture intended.
This is old news, history, long forgotten. Particularly forgotten by the state government's Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission. It is once again spruiking the need to open up parks for private developers.
The draft proposal draws out a variety of potential commercial opportunities in national parks, from a hotel and conference centre to wildlife cruises. Not exactly the type of traditional, low-impact holiday national parks are known for such as hiking, camping, cross-country skiing and family day trips.
Taking a blanket approach towards national park development is dangerous, as each of our national parks has quite different needs and responses to change, making it very difficult to analyse the broad recommendations. Consequently the Victorian National Parks Association has taken the stance of "no commercial development".
In many of the areas referred to — the Otways, Wilsons Promontory, the Alps — there are commercial opportunities on the fringes of the parks, which is where they should stay.
We have such a small amount of land in our national parks that there needs to be a level of caution when seeking out new growth. Once commercial developments are contracted and buildings are constructed, it is extremely hard to go back to how things were.
This doesn't mean that there aren't opportunities to develop in more appropriate locations, nor do we subscribe to the rhetoric of "locking up national parks". For example, the Quarantine Station at Point Nepean National Park is in a highly modified environment, potentially capable of coping with some accommodation development.
However, there needs to be stronger policy support to address whether the rest of the national park can deal with the influx of conference visitors and the effect such colossal developments will have on the community.
Each proposal for each site must be dealt with separately, and not seen as providing a case for implementing development in other areas.
One existing accommodation development in a national park, Mount Buffalo Chalet, has been a basket case for the past decade.
There is a danger that some of these other proposed building projects would end up the same, as in the case of Seal Rocks, and then not only do we lose out on our natural getaways but it could be a heavy bill for the taxpayer.
Aside from the economic considerations, opening up our national parks to commercial development is poor environmental judgment. These are fragile environments designated as worthy of preservation for future generations, which is why they were created as national parks.
The continuing development of tourism and recreational activities and businesses, particularly in regional areas, is important for Victoria's economic and social sustainability. However, there needs to be clear policy limits, broad community consultation and transparent decision-making.
Rushing into them with little critical thinking, as with Seal Rocks, is bad. The Victorian government has a responsibility as custodian of our wonderful national parks and needs to step lightly and carefully on our natural heritage before history repeats itself.
Associate Professor Sue Beeton and Dr Warwick Frost are members of the Tourism and Hospitality Research Unit (Thru) in the School of Law and Management at La Trobe University.