IN A move some say could lead to the resurrection of the ‘Hands Off The Prom’ campaign of the 1990s, the Baillieu government has outlined plans to allow private tourism investment in national parks.
The changes form part of the government’s response to the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission’s final report into Victoria’s tourism industry and have been largely welcomed by the tourism industry at the same time as they have been slammed by conservation groups.
Treasurer Kim Wells said the move would bring Victoria into line with every other state in Australia, as well as New Zealand, which already allowed development in national parks.
“If we hope to attract more international visitors to Victoria, particularly from markets such as China, we must meet the rapidly growing demand for nature-based tourism,” Mr Wells said, insisting any investment proposals would be subject to tight environmental controls and approval from the Environment Minister.
No investment proposals will be considered in wilderness zones or reference areas of national parks.
Tourism Minister Louise Asher said that 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.
“The independent Tourism Forecasting Committee predicts that by 2020 Victoria will receive approximately 500,000 Chinese overnight visitors – almost double the current level – and expenditure is forecasted to reach $1.5 billion,” Ms Asher said.
She said the changes were designed to capitalise on this, grow the tourism sector and improve access to Victoria’s world-class natural assets.
“The Coalition Government will develop guidelines on the approval process and standard terms and conditions for a lease in a national park.
“The Minister will also be able to grant up to 99-year leases in national parks to provide greater certainty for investors to help encourage investments which enhance visitor experience.
“Lease conditions will ensure that proposals are consistent with the principles of ecological sustainable development and include conditions necessary to manage any environmental risks.”
Terry Robinson, the chief executive officer of peak tourism body Destination Gippsland, cautiously welcomed the government’s announcement. He said: “Overall we support the concept, as long as any development is in partnership with Parks Victoria and sensitive, appropriate and complementary to the natural environment.”
He pointed out that several commercial tour operators already ran businesses in Wilsons Promontory National Park so the concept was not entirely new. “It can be done, there are good examples in Tasmania and New Zealand, and it can enhance the environment as well as being good economically – but there is a need for checks and balances.”
The response from the Victorian National Parks Association was in sharp contrast. Executive Director Matt Ruchel claimed the move 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,” he said. “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 (see promwildernesslodge.com.au), where financially rewarding private developments can take place without impacting on the core conservation values of parks.
“There is a danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg. People visit national parks for experiences they can’t get elsewhere – they want the opportunity to see the natural world at its best, not hotels and a shopping mall.”
The VNPA has called on the State Government to clearly rule out large-scale infrastructure such as hotels in parks.
“National parks and conservation reserves make up only about 18 per cent of the land in Victoria, and are a refuge for plants and animals in a state were there is relatively little intact native habitat left,” Mr Ruchel said.
“Experience shows that the people who benefit from private investment in parks are investors, not park visitors, or the parks themselves.”
The Victorian National Parks Association is critical of the Baillieu Government’s conservation record, and has called on it to release a detailed conservation and environment policy.
Related article: Private development suggested for Victoria’s national parks