As the coronavirus continues to impact Australia’s tourism industry, our local businesses are suffering from a larger pandemic that threatens our nation’s most iconic destination – parts of the Great Barrier Reef are bleaching again as a result of climate change.
Here in Port Douglas, we are seeing the impacts from global travel bans, misconceptions about the bushfires and climate change every day, from dwindling tourist numbers to international visitors who put their hand up to ask a question about coral bleaching.
Our answer is always simple: as anyone who has ever dived the Great Barrier Reef will tell you, there’s no place like it.
Sure, you can dive reefs all around the world, but the Great Barrier Reef is by far the best. And people from around the world know it or why else would they travel from millions of miles away just to see it?
I have been welcoming tourists from all over the world for 12 years and there is no bigger and more thriving industry than tourism – it is the backbone of our community and it’s why we love living, working and diving here.
But climate change is a sickness that threatens the future of this remarkable place and our tourism industry.
During the mass coral bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, I was out on the Reef off Port Douglas with guests from around the world watching with alarm as corals turned bone-white in the marine heatwave, with many so badly impacted they were unable to recover.
Corals are just like you and me, if you sit out in the hot sun, you’re okay for a few hours but you’ll eventually get heatstroke and fall over.
Right now, as water temperatures again hover dangerously above average, scientists are reporting coral bleaching on reefs far to our north. Individual coral colonies across the central and southern sections of the Reef are starting to fluoresce and bleach.
Yet again we are on high alert for more widespread coral bleaching and everyone is on edge – not just reef operators, but hotel workers, cafe owners, hire companies, you name it. We’re desperately hoping for a rapid cool change from good rainfall to spare the beautiful corals that survived the previous bleaching events, and those that are regrowing.
It’s clear, however, that rain alone will not save the Great Barrier Reef or our tourism industry.
Without addressing climate change — the root cause of marine heatwaves — each summer of increasingly hot conditions will continue to threaten our beautiful corals, marine life and with it so many people’s livelihoods.
Scientists have warned that unless we limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, the world’s coral reefs will disappear. Corals simply cannot survive a 2 degree warmer world – and we’re on track for 3 or 4 degrees as fossil fuel emissions keep rising.
That’s why it is so maddening to see politicians pushing for a new coal-fired power station in Queensland and supporting new thermal coal mines like Adani’s.
Unlike the coronavirus at present, climate change is curable.
Giving our Reef and tourism industry the best chance for the future means keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees. This means no new coal projects. This means a plan to rapidly transform our energy system to one based on renewable energy and backed up by battery storage.
Taking bold action on climate change by investing in solar, wind and hydro means we can protect the 64,000 jobs that rely on our Reef and create thousands more in clean industries. Australia wouldn’t be the first country to make the transition from coal, with energy companies in Germany working with governments, unions and environment groups to create well-paid jobs in clean industries.
We want people from all around the world to continue to visit the Great Barrier Reef, now and for future generations.
We are up against a wall of travel bans and climate change impacts, but we will remain strong as an industry and we will bounce back.
Following the bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, I joined with more than 150 Far North Queensland businesses and tour operators to sign a Reef Climate Declaration with the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
We shouldn’t be alone in our fight to protect the Great Barrier Reef from the impacts of climate change. As tourism operators, we are urging our political leaders to stand up for regional Queensland businesses and jobs and fight for the future of our Reef.
This article was originally published in News Corp titles, including The Courier Mail.