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Tourists Are Flocking to the Great Barrier Reef Because It’s Dying

Australia tried to hide information about the fragile Great Barrier Reef, but millions of tourists still got the memo.

Like Venice and The Galapagos Islands, Australia is finding itself at the forefront of the hospitality industry's most tragic sector: last-chance tourism.

The Great Barrier Reef experienced its worst coral bleaching on record this year, with one scientific study estimating up to 93 percent of the reef shows signs of bleaching, largely due to climate change.

Earlier this summer, the Australian government successfully suppressed information about the unhealthy state of the reef, worried that it would drive away tourism, a $5.2 billion industry. Now, a survey in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism found that nearly 70 percent of visitors to the Great Barrier Reef list the desire "to see the reef before it's gone" as the primary reason for their journey to the 3,200km World Heritage-listed site off the coast of Queensland.

More than four million people travel to the Great Barrier Reef each year, and the weak Aussie dollar has resulted in record numbers of Australians hitting the marine park this year, with domestic visitors up by 33.5 percent since last March.

Bleached coral. Image: Wikimedia

While I assumed a surge in tourists snorkeling, diving, and generally flailing around amongst the coral would likely damage it even further, reef scientist Peter Mumby said the impacts of tourism are actually "overwhelmingly positive."

"Some tourists do cause limited physical damage, but this pales in comparison to what's done by cyclones, bleaching, and crown-of-thorns starfish," he said. "The greater the value of Great Barrier Reef tourism, the easier it is to justify government investment in reef management."

The biggest threat remains climate change and, in turn, coral bleaching. Bleaching usually occurs when coral becomes stressed by rising water temperatures or pollution, causing it to expel the living algae it houses and turn a stark white. Coral can survive a bleaching event, but the longer it remains bleached and the higher the intensity of the event make death increasingly likely. The coral death toll in the Great Barrier Reef's most-affected northern and central sections is currently estimated at 35-percent.

Col McKenzie, an executive with the reef's privately run Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (which gives $6 million annually toward the reef's upkeep and scientific research), says an industry driven by panic is the last thing he wants. "That kind of pre-disaster tourism marketing works, but it's very short-term," McKenzie told Motherboard. "The majority of our visitors are from long-haul destinations. If you're from Asia or Europe, why are going to fly all the way here if you think it's on its way to being dead?"

"It's a really dangerous thing for a government that purports to be a western democracy to start suppressing scientific information."

That very question was at the heart of the Australian government's petition to have UNESCO remove its chapter on the Great Barrier Reef, and all other mentions of Australia, from its May 2016 report on climate change. As first revealed by The Guardian, the government feared the report would have a negative impact on tourism. (A leaked copy showed it assessed the Great Barrier Reef as a "poor and deteriorating" ecosystem "assailed by multiple threats.")

"Recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of world heritage properties impacted on tourism," the Environment Department said in a statement. "The department was concerned that the framing of the report confused two issues — the world heritage status of the sites and risks arising from climate change and tourism."

UNESCO caved, and Australia was the only inhabited country on earth to be omitted.

Will Steffen, former science advisor to the Australian Government Department of Climate Change, told me he was shocked by the government's request. "My surprise quickly turned into disgust," said Steffen, who also peer reviewed the chapter before its omission.

"You'd expect it from the former Soviet Union—they did that sort of thing all the time—but it's a really dangerous thing for a government that purports to be a western democracy to start suppressing scientific information."

Divers at the Great Barrier Reef. Image: Jorge Lascar/Wikimedia

While last year's ground-breaking Paris Agreement saw 195 countries, including Australia, commit to preventing the global average temperature from rising more than 1.5°C, Steffen fears it may be too little, too late for the majority of the reef. This summer was Earth's hottest on record.

Read More: Australia Is Letting the Great Barrier Reef Die Over Coal

"The only way you're going to save even remnants of the reef is if we and the rest of the world get off fossil fuels really fast in the next decade or two," he said. "I just don't sense that urgency anywhere around the Australian political scene, apart from the Greens."

And even if everyone suddenly takes urgent action on climate change, Steffen says, the recovery and regrowth process for the reef—which is also battling threats from land clearing and coal-mining expansion in Queensland — could take "hundreds of years."

"It would be a centuries-long timeframe," he says. "But I think that's the best hope we've got."

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