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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Oceans Facts and Figures

A report commissioned by Environment Australia October 1997

Commonwealth of Australia
ISBN 0 642 54548 0

4. Using the ocean


Australia's beautiful coastlines and sandy beaches are the envy of the world with increasing numbers of international tourists being drawn to the Australian seaside. By the mid-1990s more than 3 million international visitors were coming to Australia each year and most of Australia's international tourism is based around the coast.

The Queensland Gold Coast alone attracts over 2.3 million visitors a year (not including day trippers or children). The Great Barrier Reef, the Wet Tropics, Fraser Island, Lord Howe Island, Shark Bay and other sites attract growing numbers of both international and domestic tourists.

For Australians the coast is the most frequented place of recreation after the family home and a holiday `at the coast' remains one of the great Australian traditions.

In these ways Australia's marine environment, and its attractiveness, contribute to both the well-being and the national income of Australians. During the 1980s foreign exchange from international tourism grew dramatically from $2.2 billion to well over $6.9 billion. By 1996 this figure had reached $16 billion and tourism was earning more than exports of coal.

This does not take into account the enormous flow-on effects generated by coastal and marine tourism, which are often difficult to assess. These can include sales of swimwear, fishing gear, surfboards, yachts and car hire. The `beach fashion' industry alone has a turnover of over $1 billion a year.

The domestic and international tourists flocking to Australia's coast support a major resort industry. Coastal areas outside the major cities support 38 per cent of hotels and motels in Australia, 52 per cent of the caravan parks and 75 per cent of the commercial flats, units and houses, and have a turnover of over $1 billion a year.

In 1996 over 1 million international visitors went swimming, surfed or dived, while they were here. Around 468 000 snorkelled or scuba dived and 136 000 went sailing, yachting or sailboarding. Associated with coastal tourism is a growing fleet of commercial passenger vessels, taking tourists to island resorts, sightseeing, fishing, diving and even whale watching. There is also a growing number of cruise ship visits, particularly to the northern coastal resorts areas, such as the Great Barrier Reef.

The environmental impacts from marine tourism have increased over recent years as a result of greater visitor numbers. An additional factor is technological development producing faster marine vessels, giving tourists greater access to a wider range of areas. This is particularly significant in areas such as the Great Barrier Reef. There are also cumulative impacts from the increasing numbers of tourists and the development of resorts and other facilities.

Box 4 - at the coast

The coast is an Australian icon and the most frequented place of recreation outside of the home. Our coastal and marine environments also attract an ever increasing number of international tourists each year. Some related tourism and recreation statistics include:

  • international tourism involving over 3 million visitors, most of which is based around the coast;
  • recreational fishing has been valued as a $3 billion dollar a year industry in Australia*;
  • 2 million Australians regularly use surfboards and water sports generally (including scuba diving) are among the nations big growth areas;
  • tens of millions of dollars are spent each year in Australia on boats and other water craft and 80 000 people are members of sailing clubs;
  • the economic flow-on effects of marine tourism and recreation can be substantial, for example, the `beach fashion' industry turns over in excess of $1 billion per year.

* According to the Australian Recreational and Sports Fishing Confederation


It is estimated that around one third of the Australian population is involved in recreational fishing in some way. According to the Australian Recreational and Sports Fishing Confederation the industry is worth more than $3 billion a year, with direct employment of up to 80 000 people. The recreational catch in Australia is significant, although minor compared with the total commercial catch. Recreational and commercial fishers may compete for some species in some areas The best fishing is usually to be found in clean environments. Chemical pollutants, in particular, can affect fishing before they are obvious to other beach users. A clean and healthy marine environment remains crucial to the continuing development of the industry.

Surfing is a popular sport in southern Australia and there is an estimated 2 million Australians who regularly use surf boards. This number could almost double when taking into account those who use sailboards and surf skis, which have been one of the fastest growing areas of water sports. Scuba diving has also undergone major growth in recent years and an estimated 700 000 people scuba dive each year with equipment sales exceeding $35 million annually. For these sports water quality is of major concern. Many surfing and diving organisations have become active in opposing ocean sewage discharges and helping to clean up the marine environment.

Another major marine pastime is boating, with tens of millions of dollars spent each year on the purchase of boats. There are over half a million registered, privately-owned motor vessels in Australia and hundreds of thousands of canoes and other smaller craft. Sailing is one of the great, environmentally benign pastimes in Australia and more than 80 000 people are members of sailing clubs.

Some of the main impacts of boating include waste disposal and construction of marinas. The use of anti-fouling paints has been a major problem in the past. Tributyltin (TBT), which adversely effects oysters, was the active ingredient in marine antifouling paints since the early 1970s until a worldwide ban was imposed on boats less than 25 metres. This took effect in Australia in 1988 but TBT is still used on larger vessels, however, further research into non-toxic alternatives to TBT is being supported by the shipping industry .

Undervalued assets

The increased pressure on coastal areas brought on by recreation and tourism can have major implications for the state of those very areas which people are seeking to enjoy, such as beaches, sand dunes, reefs and lagoons. In addition to such population pressures, structures such as marinas and breakwaters can also cause problems, for example, by adding to beach erosion by cutting off longshore drift. Beach erosion resulting from human causes is a global phenomenon, affecting 70 per cent of beaches.

Dredging marine entrances to improve navigation can affect the state of coastal lagoons, usually by increasing the in-flow of sea water, causing higher salinity. This can typically result in the die-back of freshwater vegetation. In some instances former brackish coastal lagoons have been freshened because of barrages being built to prevent salt water incursion. The use of off-road vehicles, and coastal walking tracks, can contribute to the destruction of sand dunes. Land reclamations for fishing ports, resorts and urban development occur all around the coast, causing a loss of intertidal land and water resources, including saltmarshes, mangroves and seagrass beds.

A key obstacle to reversing the trend towards environmental decline of coastal and marine areas used for recreation and tourism is that their real value tends not to be recognised by conventional economics. In most cases in Australia, access and use of these areas is provided free of charge. In this way these `environmental assets' are excluded from most financial transactions with the result that they tend to be undervalued and thus over-exploited or misused.

The real costs of degradation due to major changes to or loss of the natural environment, pollution and depletion of resources are rarely taken into account. Traditional accounting methods also fail to recognise the 'non use' values that society has increasingly begun to place upon environments in their natural state, as support systems for the 'web of life' and as places to be enjoyed simply for their natural beauty.

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