As reported on the ABC on Tuesday, Fran Bailey, the federal Minister for Small Business and Tourism, “wants to get commercial tourism operators involved in developing facilities in national parks.” And that she is “launching a new partnership, under which private companies will be encouraged to develop plans for accommodation, restaurants and other infrastructure in national park areas.”

Bailey said tourists spend $23 billion a year on visits to natural areas.

Many National parks no doubt generate this income and the spending of international tourists is export income – but a whole lot less are likely to visit if these areas are developed.

Though this is not rocket science this common sense contradicts the prevailing ‘economic view’ of National Parks as having only ‘a contingent value’. A contingent value may be derived by asking people what they would be prepared to spend to protect or save a National Park – not the kind of value that impresses either federal or state treasury.

Despite the obvious income generated from tourism, many in industry and government still treat National Parks as ‘locked up resources’ because they prevent mining and forestry – and major tourist development.

The almost universal abhorrence of everything economic by the environment movement has only seen this view reinforced. For them and most people in the community, National Parks are very special places that preserve natural landscapes, birds and animals for ever – places to get back in touch with nature – places families camp in over generations. Herein lies the potential electoral sting.

It is the campers that in fact generate the economic value from National Parks to the surrounding districts. Where access and facilities are adequate and camping is available, hundreds of thousands of people stay in and visit National Parks annually across Australia.

These campers spend little beyond camping fees in the National Park. They buy their food and drinks in the surrounding towns on the approaches to National Parks. This is also where the higher class accommodation lies in the rapidly growing bed and breakfast market, holiday house and cabin rental and overflow camping grounds outside the parks borders. This preserves the integrity and tourist pulling power of National Parks.

Additionally thousands of visitors have unintentional spending – the cars blow up, flat tyres, trinkets and presents for family and friends and blocks of land for retirement etc. all keeping the surrounding regional economy ticking over.

For most economists however, parks costs are measured within their boundaries. If the visitor fees are high enough, the good old supply and demand curve will eventually return the full cost of looking after less visitors and cost the government less or even nothing – but it will crush the economy of the surrounding towns who rely on large numbers of backpackers and campers to keep their tills ticking over.

Fran Bailey’s plan could also worsen the Howard government’s electoral chances. In 1996 Jeff Kennett was riding high in his second term as a popular Victorian Premier. Then his government declared that a major resort would be constructed in Wilson’s Promontory National Park with more than 300,000 visitors a year in Victoria’s far south.

By capturing the tourist market the local towns would suffer. By capturing the first view – uninterrupted from the first resort’s windows – the success of any venture was guaranteed – but at the further cost of lost visitor numbers, expenditure and votes.

The campaign against the Kennett government over the proposed tourist development was extraordinary – yet through the Christmas of 1996 and early January 1997 he and his then Minister for conservation Marie Tehan stood rock solid. This was despite front page photos of hundreds of people forming ‘Hands off the Prom’ signs on the beaches with their bodies and towels in the Herald Sun and The Age.

The electoral impact was growing rapidly however and by mid January Marie Tehan announce that plans for the resort would be dropped. Insiders told of a government haemorrhaging thousands of votes per day – especially in nearby electorates where many of the campers came from.

In the election of the following year the Liberals lost the nearby seat of Gippsland West to Susan Davies who was one of the three independents that cost the Kennett Government power.

Pumping up national parks with tourist development will no doubt kill the economic golden egg in Regional Australia and will not do the political goose much good either.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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