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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Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time.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.

Coastal Tourism - A Manual for Sustainable Development

Based on a draft paper prepared by Southern Cross University
Portfolio Marine Group, Environment Australia, 1997
ISBN 0 642 27129 1

Part 1 - The coastal zone and sustainable development

This part of the manual looks at the nature of the coast and the concept of sustainable coastal tourism development.

A sustainable coast

Australia's coastal zone is a priceless natural resource, with a special place in the lives of Australians. Comprising only 17 per cent of the land area of Australia (as defined by administrative boundaries), it houses 86 per cent of Australia's population, including nearly half of Australia's Indigenous peoples, and is subject to a range of other land use pressures.

Ecosystem: A dynamic interdependent complex of living things and their non-living environment.

The coast is also the main focus of Australia's rapidly expanding tourism industry, providing an important part of the industry's attraction and resource base for both domestic and international visitors.

Coastal tourism developments comprise developments and activities conducted upon land immediately adjacent to the shoreline, coastal wetlands, estuaries and tidal waters, and external territories and associated marine waters. This manual deals mainly with terrestrial coastal tourism developments, but the principles it puts forward can be applied to all coastal tourism developments, including marinas and slipways, large and small resorts.

Environment: External conditions affecting life forms including plants, animals and human beings as individuals or in social groups.

Coastal tourism development must be sustainable if the Australian tourism industry is to remain profitable in the long term, if Australians are to maintain their quality of life and well-being, and if the nation is to retain its diverse and unique ecosystems and species. Unsustainable development in the coastal zone will lead to a degraded natural environment, and therefore a degraded resource base for tourism and accompanying loss of profitability, and a diminished quality of life for most Australians.

Ecological processes: Processes which play an essential part in maintaining ecosystems.

What is sustainable coastal tourism development?

'We have not inherited the earth from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children.'

World Conservation Strategy, 1980

Tourism is largely a natural resource based industry and, as such, it affects air, land and water. It can damage natural systems if its planning, development and operation are not properly managed. Tourism that is properly planned, developed and managed, however, can minimise the impact on the environment - and even benefit the environment. This is what we call sustainable tourism development. It reconciles economic growth with the need to preserve the earth's physical environment and ecological processes - air, water, soil and biodiversity.

Biodiversity: The variety of life forms - the different plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms, the genes they contain, and the ecosystems they form.

Sustainable tourism development is based on the concept of ecologically sustainable development (ESD), which means using, conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained and quality of life for both present and future generations is increased.

This concept was first developed at the United Nations Stockholm Conference in 1972. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, all member United Nations countries agreed on Agenda 21, an action plan for global sustainable development into the twenty-first century.

Sustainable development: Development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Although the emphasis of ESD is often on the environmental aspect, there are three interdependent dimensions to ESD: economic, environmental and social (see Figure 1). The way we think about these dimensions is influenced largely by our cultural values, rights and responsibilities.

We can think of ESD as a three-legged stool, with the legs of the stool being the economy, the environment and society. The stool needs its three legs to function and be stable; without its three legs it will collapse. Similarly, ESD requires a healthy economy, environment and society. If any one of these components is missing, development will not be sustainable. A development that fails to consider the social dimension, for example, local community concerns about decreased privacy, increased pollution or loss of open space, will suffer from lack of community support. One that ignores the environmental dimension will result in a degraded resource base. And any successful development must obviously be based on sound economic principles.

ESD: Using conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained and quality of life for both present and future generations is increased.

Fig 1: ecologically sustainable developments

Figure 1: Ecologically sustainable developments aims to achieve the best environmental, economic and social outcomes (illustrated by the central shaded area)
Adapted from Brown VA 1995.

Natural environment: An environment that is not the result of human activity or intervention.>

In the past, the use of natural resources, development, the protection of the environment and maintenance of a healthy society were generally treated as separate issues. This led to long-term damage to the environment and the depletion of natural resources, as well as to the loss of other values such as amenity, culture and heritage. It also often created conflict, rather than encouraging stakeholders to seek common ground.

Stakeholders: Groups, individuals or organisations who may be affected by a development proposal whether or not their stake in the outcome is explicit.

ESD recognises that if we are to meet the needs of the present-day generation while conserving ecosystems and resources for future generations, we must acknowledge the interdependence of the economy, environment and society.

ESD recognises that the existing environment creates opportunities and sets constraints. There will inevitably be situations where the goals of economic growth, environmental protection and a healthy society are irreconcilable and choices will have to be made. In such situations, there will usually have to be trade-offs to obtain the best economic, environmental and social outcomes. Decision-makers will have to choose between alternative courses of action in deciding whether a proposed development should proceed. They must weigh the costs of proceeding with a project against the benefits that would arise from it.

ESD is also about bringing together the various interest groups, or stakeholders, to reach a consensus about how sustainable development should be achieved and how community interests, economic interests and environmental protection can be reconciled.

Box A: Characteristics of ecologically sustainable tourism

The challenge for tourism developers and operators is to develop the tourism industry in a way which conserves its natural resources and built heritage base and minimises any negative environmental, ecological, social and cultural impact.

Tourism will be ecologically sustainable if it:

Using self-regulation to achieve sustainable coastal tourism development

Sustainable tourism development requires continuing commitment and action by all Australians - all levels of government, industry and the community. While there are regulations governing coastal tourism development, the tourism industry is being encouraged to adopt voluntary management procedures, such as using environmental guidelines and codes of practice, rather than be strictly regulated. It is believed that self-regulatory techniques are likely to be more effective than statutory regulation in addressing specific environmental issues because they are flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. Also, the tourism industry is more likely to take responsibility and ownership for any self-regulatory approach.

A number of market forces also encourage tourism developers and operators to make their venture sustainable. These forces include:

Why consider sustainable development?

It is not only ethical to consider the fragility of a given environment and the concerns and needs of local communities, it also often makes simple economic sense. Tourism, probably more readily than many other forms of development, can readily accept environmental, social and economic responsibility because such responsibility is vital to its survival and growth.

Like most economic activities, tourism uses up materials and resources and also creates waste products which have to be disposed of into the land, the air or the water, often creating pollution. As economic activity grows and expands, the readily available materials and resources get used up and the environment deteriorates as a result of the pollution.

So it is important to look after the environmental attractions that created the need for a tourism development in the first place, and on whose continued attractiveness the development depends for its survival. Nowhere is this more important than in the fragile and dynamic coastal zone.

It is also important to consider the social dimension of any development. Experience has shown that developments that do not involve consultation with local communities and special interest groups often result in costly and time-consuming litigation. This can lead to negative publicity and a community backlash against operations. So early and effective community consultation, including consultation with Indigenous community groups, can not only decrease your costs but also help to enhance community relationships and reduce the potential for negative reactions to your venture. The following box provides an introduction to the significance of coastal environments to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Community consultation: Procedures whereby members of the community can express their views about a proposed development.

Box B: What is special about Indigenous peoples' relationship with the coast?

For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including those living in urbanised areas of Australia, the significance of land and sea is intimately bound to the spirituality surrounding the origins of landscapes and seascapes, and the animals and plants that inhabit them.

Indigenous Australian's creation beliefs vary from region to region, but they generally describe the journeys of ancestral beings (often giant animals or people) over what began as a featureless domain. Mountains, rivers, estuaries, headlands, islands, animals and plants came into being as a result of events which took place during these Dreamtime journeys. The existence of these geographic features in the present-day landscapes is seen by many Indigenous peoples as confirmation of their creation beliefs.

From the beginning

The belief by Indigenous peoples that they have been part of the Australian environment from the beginning of time has a particular significance in coastal environments. Research in the last 30 years has established that the current Australian coastline was created when the surrounding sea stabilised at its current level about 6000 years ago. Since Indigenous peoples have been on this continent for at least 40 000 years, it is a fact that Indigenous cultures have been part of the coastal environments since they began. Or, to put it another way, Australia's contemporary coastal environments have only ever existed in the presence of Indigenous custodians.

Indigenous peoples: Australians who identify as belonging to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander groups and who are recognised by their communities as belonging to those groups.

Sacred sites and Dreaming tracks

While all landscape features have their origins in Dreamtime creation stories, there are some places of special significance to Indigenous peoples. These places are often referred to as 'sacred sites', a generic term for different types of special places on land or sea. Some sacred sites are places where particularly important events occurred during the Dreamtime. Other places are known as 'increase centres', where special ceremonies are conducted to ensure the well-being of particular species.

The routes taken by the Creator Beings in their Dreamtime journeys across land and sea are also of continuing significance to Indigenous groups. Dreaming tracks (or songlines) can run for many hundreds of kilometres, from desert to coast and traversing the traditional countries of many different Indigenous groups.

Caring for country

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples traditionally derive their individual and group identities from their own particular area of land and sea, often referred to as their 'country'. Throughout their life, Indigenous peoples retain their cultural association with, and responsibilities to look after, their traditional country - even though they may no longer have ownership or even access to it.

It is this sense of responsibility to country that makes Indigenous groups particularly keen to be involved in the management of coastal areas.

Native title

Native title is the term used in Australian, New Zealand, British and Canadian common law to describe the relationship of Indigenous peoples to their traditional countries. In 1992 the Australian High Court found that native title had existed in this country for as long as Indigenous people had lived here and had been part of Australian common law from the beginning of British settlement. In 1993 the Commonwealth Parliament, through the Native Title Act, established measures to protect remaining native title and mechanisms for Indigenous groups to have their claims for recognition of native title dealt with through the National Native Title Tribunal and the Federal Court.

The Native Title Act also confirmed the validity of all existing non-Indigenous land tenures, such as freehold and leasehold land.Effectively, the Act established that native title had been extinguished on all freehold land but may remain on other lands, particularly vacant crown lands and national parks. It left unresolved the question of whether or not native title may coexist with the rights of pastoralists on pastoral leases. In 1996 the High Court found in the Wik case that such coexistence could indeed occur, although the rights of pastoralists were confirmed as superior to those of Aboriginal groups wherever a conflict arose.

A greater understanding of native title issues can be obtained from the National Native Title Tribunal Internet site at

Indigenous custodians: Indigenous people with cultural responsibility for managing their traditional land and sea, whether or not they are currently the statutory owners or managers of those areas.

Guiding principles

These principles are put forward to guide coastal tourism development. Use the practical ideas contained in the checklists in Part 2 of this manual to put these guiding principles into practice.

Guiding principles for sustainable coastal tourism development

Primary asset

The natural environment is imbued with ecological and cultural values and must be protected and enhanced for ecological, social and economic reasons.


Economic, social and environmental factors are interdependent. Neglecting the issues associated with any one of these areas may threaten the sustainability of a tourism venture.


Environmental, social and economic factors are appropriately addressed when determining the possibilities of and limits to the scope of a coastal tourism development.

Cumulative impacts

If individual developments are planned and proceed on the basis of a compromise where ecological sustainability is not assured, the cumulative effect will be progressive environmental deterioration (death by a thousand cuts) and consequent failure to meet the goals of economic and social sustainability.

Areas of high conservation

Developers of sustainable coastal tourism ventures recognise that some areas of high conservation value or cultural significance should be left largely undeveloped, to protect these assets for present and future generations.

Cultural heritage

Appropriate coastal tourism development recognises the significance of cultural heritage, including Indigenous heritage, and protects or enhances the cultural heritage of Australia's coasts.


Developers of sustainable coastal tourism ventures are willing to reconsider all features of their development in the light of market research, community concerns, or the environmental and/or ecological limits determined by the site. It is cost-effective, timely, and considerably easier to be flexible in the pre-application stages of a development proposal than in the later stages.

Integrated planning

Coastal tourism developments integrate and are compatible with activities and requirements of the region, local communities, local infrastructure, and tourism, environmental or management plans for the area. This will help protect fragile environmental assets and sites of cultural significance, and deal with the cumulative effects of tourism growth. Integrated planning is also about good coordination and liaison between the various agencies involved in making decisions that affect the coast.

Consultation with the community

Coastal tourism developers consult and negotiate with the community in the pre- and post-application stages to allay or accommodate community concerns, and thus gain wide community support.


The siting of sustainable coastal tourism developments incorporates the protection and/or enhancement of natural, landscape, archaeological or cultural features of the site.

Enhance: To introduce to a place additional individuals of one or more species or habitat elements which naturally exist there.


The design of a sustainable coastal tourism development is environmentally sensitive, energy- and water-efficient, and has minimal or no long-term impact on the natural, heritage and cultural values of its location.


Both the construction and operational phases of development are monitored and evaluated. While a development may appear to be ecologically sustainable in the early phases, environmental degradation may be slowly occurring. Practices and behaviour are modified when the development's environmental, social or economic performance can be improved.