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Onboard - Tourism Operator's Handbook for the Great Barrier Reef

What Makes the Reef Special?


It's big

The Great Barrier Reef is undisputed as one of the world's most important natural assets. It is the largest natural feature on earth stretching more than 2300 km from the northern tip of Queensland to just north of Bundaberg. It is in fact a collection of about 2900 individual reefs.

At 348 700 square kilometres, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the world's largest World Heritage Area and the biggest tropical marine reserve.

It's complex

The Reef is a complex ecosystem with many creatures relying on each other for food and survival. Virtually all groups of marine plants and animals are abundantly represented in the Reef. Only tropical rainforests come close to rivalling the Reef for richness of species. There are also many threatened species that are protected within the Marine Park, including dugongs and six of the world's seven species of marine turtles.

It's culturally special

Many Indigenous values and traditions are linked to the Reef, focussing on trade networks, beliefs, music, art, laws and creation stories. The links between Indigenous groups and the Reef have been imbedded into the culture over thousands of years and continue today. There are coastal communities along the entire Great Barrier Reef coast who have traditional affiliations with the Great Barrier Reef and take an interest in its management.

It's rich in history

Captain James Cook is one of the most famous Great Barrier Reef explorers, charting and naming many of the Reef's landmarks during his 1770 voyage on the Endeavour. However, he didn't name the Reef. That honour fell to Matthew Flinders in 1803. In the early days of settlement along the Queensland coast, shipping in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef was one of the most reliable ways to transport goods, supplies and, of course, people to the expanding coastal communities. The legacy of this era is a number of significant shipwrecks, plus historic lighthouses and ruins on some islands.

It's different

Many marine parks throughout the world are set up as strict preservation areas ('look but don't take') that do not allow any extractive activities such as fishing and collecting. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is different - it is a multiple use protected area. In other words, the Marine Park is managed to protect the Reef's natural and cultural heritage values, and at the same time allow for a diverse range of sustainable commercial and recreational activities including fishing, tourism, research and education.

The goal of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is to provide for the protection, wise use, understanding and enjoyment of the Great Barrier Reef in perpetuity through the care and development of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

It's worth $$$

The Great Barrier Reef brings billions of dollars into Australia's economy - estimated at over $5 billion each year. That translates to a lot of jobs and many livelihoods both along the Great Barrier Reef coast and around Australia. Tourism is by far the largest industry on the Reef, followed by commercial and recreational fishing.

Tourists visiting the Reef contribute to its management by paying the Environmental Management Charge. In 2009-10, they paid around $8 million to management, education and research in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

And it's popular

Drawn by the Reef's spectacular beauty and international reputation, tourists make around 1.9 million visits to the Marine Park each year, while recreational users make an estimated 14 million visits annually. The number of tourists visiting the Marine Park has been stable over the last decade, following strong growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

There are about 820 permitted tourism operators in the Marine Park, most operating in the Cairns/Port Douglas area or in the Whitsundays. Although these two areas are less than 10% of the Marine Park, they are visited by over 85% of visitors.

Image supplied courtesy of Tourism Queensland

© Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority