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Losing Touch with Reality

June 29, 2015

Great_Barrier_reefAt the end of May, we heard the ‘great’ news that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef had escaped an entry on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.

However, any connection with reality and the dire environmental implications of a UNESCO ‘in danger’ listing were lost in the marketing and PR efforts that followed.

In a joint statement from the Federal and Queensland State Governments, it was announced that UNESCO had ‘recommended against the Great Barrier Reef being listed as “in danger”’ and that ‘Australia and Queensland’s efforts have been praised.’

While not called out in the joint press release, the key marketing and PR message was pretty clear – both in the lead up to the decision and immediately afterwards – an “in danger” listing would have been a threat to the region’s tourism industry.

“An in danger listing could have been disaster for the tourism industry”, says the reporter dutifully in the Sky News broadcast piece after the UNESCO decision was announced.

The accompanying story from AAP expands on the point: “There were fears tourists would stop visiting the reef, which contributes about $6 billion to the national economy each year.”

(‘Ministers say Great Barrier Reef on the mend’, Sky News, 31 May 2015)

The ABC was a touch more circumspect, but still swallowed the same line:

“It is a significant reprieve for the Queensland and Federal governments, with an adverse listing being potentially disastrous for the tourism industry.”

(‘Great Barrier Reef: UNESCO recommends world heritage site not be placed on ‘in danger’ list’, ABC News, 1 June 2015)

A week or so after the announcement, it turns out that reporting of water quality improvement – one of the things that “saved” the Reef from being listed – was “not necessarily true”. (‘Great Barrier Reef: Public reporting of water quality ‘misleading at worst’, Queensland auditor-general says’, ABC News, 11 June 2015)

“In Danger”

So what exactly is the List of World Heritage in Danger? There are currently 46 properties around the world, and the criteria for “in danger” is laid out under Article 11(4) of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (my italicisation below):

“…threatened by serious and specific dangers, such as the threat of disappearance caused by accelerated deterioration, large-scale public or private projects or rapid urban or tourist development projects; destruction caused by changes in the use or ownership of the land; major alterations due to unknown causes; abandonment for any reason whatsoever; the outbreak or the threat of an armed conflict; calamities and cataclysms; serious fires, earthquakes, landslides; volcanic eruptions; changes in water level, floods and tidal waves.”

We are talking about some really serious consequences, and in their defence both Sky News and the ABC did cover UNESCO’s ongoing concerns:

“Outlook for the Reef remains poor, with climate change, poor water quality and impacts from coastal developments a major threat to its health.” (Sky News video)

The grim irony is that by linking an “in danger” listing with a threat to the tourism industry, we are missing the point entirely.

UNESCO’s “in danger” listing is a threat to the tourism industry and not because it “could cause reputational and ‘brand’ damage to the reef” (yes, that’s exactly how SpiceNews reported it).

No – we could lose the Great Barrier Reef altogether, and where would that leave the tourism industry?

(Pictured above: “Coral Outcrop Flynn Reef”, Toby Hudson, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.)

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