PRESSING on with its grand plans to ‘unlock Victoria’s nature-based tourism’, the Victorian government this week released guidelines for tourism investment opportunities in national parks.
Minister for Environment and Climate Change Ryan Smith said the guidelines for “environmentally friendly and sustainable tourism” in national parks would provide Victorians, as well as interstate and international visitors, with “greater opportunities to experience and appreciate the state’s wonderful natural environment”.
The guidelines follow the release last year of an independent report by the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission which recommended “sensible and sensitive developments in national parks”.
Mr Smith said the Coalition Government had embraced the recommendations to stimulate and drive “a new era of eco-tourism in Victoria”.
The Victorian National Parks Association took a different view, asserting the government’s decision to open up Victoria’s national parks to tourism development and private investment set a dangerous precedent for the state’s conservation reserves.
“This is a misguided and dangerous new direction in management of our magnificent network of national parks and reserves,” said VNPA executive director Matt Ruchel when he heard the government’s response to the recommendations.
“Exposing our parks like this could lead to irreversible damage to some of our most precious natural areas.
“The primary role of national parks is the conservation of nature on behalf of all Victorians. Our parks were not created to end up as building sites for hotels and large-scale infrastructure that can only be used by a privileged few who can afford it.
“There is ample opportunity for tourism infrastructure adjacent to parks, where financially rewarding private developments can take place without impacting on the core conservation values of parks.” * see FCO editor’s note below
Mr Ruchel added: “Experience shows that the people who benefit from private investment in parks are investors, not park visitors, or the parks themselves.”
Mr Smith, however, said the time has come to “open the doors to a new world of opportunity to encourage investment opportunities in Victoria’s world class natural assets”.
“Victoria’s national parks are important public assets and, just as occurs in other states and territories, should be open to the public so they can be enjoyed in a responsible and sustainable way,” he said, insisting the guidelines would provide strict environmental protections as part of a comprehensive approvals process.
“Proposals for major new tourism projects will require a detailed environmental management plan supported by an independent environmental risk assessment and auditing of the plan.
“There must also be proper community consultation and projects will be asked to generate a net public benefit for the community use of the park.”
Mr Smith said the guidelines were an important step towards enabling appropriate investment to occur in regional Victoria, and enhancing tourism opportunities and supporting local economies.
“The more that people have access to their natural environment the more they will come to appreciate, respect and care for it,” he said.
Minister for Tourism and Major Events Louise Asher said Victoria was competing with other states, the Northern Territory and New Zealand to gain market share in the lucrative eco-tourism sector, and needed to improve its offering to travellers to induce them to stay longer in regional Victoria.
Mr Smith said the Coalition Government would be encouraging proposals that complemented the values of national parks, broadened their appeal and allowed more people to experience these unique places.
The government will exclude investment proposals in certain areas, such as wilderness parks, wilderness zones and remote and natural areas set out in the National Parks Act 1975 or reference areas under the Reference Areas Act 1978.
Approved tourism investment projects will be subject to lease conditions to ensure the values of national parks are not compromised. Legislation to enable the changes will be introduced into Parliament in the coming months.
The guidelines can be read at www.dse.vic.gov.au.
* an excellent example of a development opportunity adjacent to Wilsons Prom is www.wilsonspromnatureretreat.com.au