Visiting Nature’s Gifts

Dr Graeme L. Worboys AM is an Honorary Associate Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University & Bruce Gall is a former Director of the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service.

This is the sixth article in an 8-part series discussing our nature’s gifts.

A decade of biennial visitor surveys by Roy Morgan Research confirms the continuing rise in popularity of NSW national parks, from 38 million domestic visits in 2008 to 60 million in 2018, the latter figure a 17% increase over 2016. Expenditure associated with this increase has been a boon to regional economies. City visitors and country businesses are a potentially powerful constituency in support of our national parks and their nature’s gifts.

The scheduled 2020 survey did not take place (a victim of Covid?), so the 2018 data remains the most recent. The telephone surveys record the number of visits, not visitors. This is an important distinction which has confused media outlets and government officials alike. In a 2019 press release, former Environment Minister Matt Kean is quoted as saying “A whopping 60 million Australians visited NSW national parks in 2018 …”. Whopping indeed! Visit numbers give a better measure of potential impacts and revenue generation than visitor numbers.

Another feature of the Morgan survey is that it only counts domestic visitors. Sydney, the city of national parks, was a major beneficiary of the record visitation with Sydneysiders comprising 55% of visits. This is unsurprising as few other cities worldwide have so many parks on their doorstep. When it comes to natural areas in which to picnic, bushwalk, jog, swim, watch birds, find solitude, refresh the spirit or nurture the soul, Sydneysiders are spoilt for choice. Five of the six most visited national parks are in or near Sydney, namely Blue Mountains (8.4 million visits), Royal (6.1 million), Ku-ring-gai Chase (3.9 million), Sydney Harbour (2.4 million) and Lane Cove (2.2 million). Royal is now 143 years old; the Chase 128 years! How many millions of visitors have enjoyed these two parks since they were established?

Long ago visionaries ensured these natural areas were protected. Frederick Eccleston du Faur’s concern over florists pillaging wildflowers in Ku-ring-gai Chase led him to successfully agitate for the creation of NSW’s second national park in 1894. Myles Dunphy began planning and lobbying for a Greater Blue Mountains National Park in the 1920’s, the dream finally realised in the 1980’s. Other visionaries included politicians; more about them later.

Morgan’s six surveys from 2008 to 2018 revealed an average of 56% of respondents stated walking was their preferred activity in parks. It’s interesting to compare this result with the following initiative from another conservation area.

In the mid-1980’s, Kakadu National Park commenced annual campground surveys during the busy dry season. Every campground in the two million ha park was visited on the one day, involving 30 rangers armed with a questionnaire and a smile. Most visitors enjoy chatting to rangers and vice versa, and many cups of tea and cakes were consumed. As with the Morgan data, the survey showed walking was the preferred activity. This surprised park staff as anecdotal evidence didn’t indicate a high level of walking track usage.

The survey was repeated the following year with an amended questionnaire. When ‘walking’ was stated as the preferred activity, the visitor was then asked where they had walked. The main answer, ‘around the campground’, was another surprise. Our carefully planned walking tracks were still being used, though not as often as we would have hoped.

Visitor satisfaction in the Morgan surveys makes good reading (especially for rangers!), with 90-94% of respondents being either ‘very satisfied or satisfied’ with their park visit. This is an important result, as visitors who have enjoyed their park visit are more likely to come again, and also be a park supporter should the government of the day not recognise the wide range of benefits national parks bring to our society.

An interesting Morgan question related to the type of trip. One of the five possible answers was Part of a regular daily, weekly, or monthly routine, which achieved the highest response of 41%, representing 24 million visits. Unfortunately, there were no follow up questions to explore this result further. 

If 24 million visits were part of regular routines, it would be useful to know what the routines are and where they are happening, to assess potential benefits and impacts. These routine users of parks – walkers, joggers, exercisers, bikers, swimmers, etc – would generally fall into the category of health beneficiaries of parks, an area needing greater recognition from politicians and health professionals.

A further 19%, nearly 12 million visits, were on multi-day trips, a category which includes grey nomads and backpackers. These travellers may be unaware of local parks along the way, so town visitor centres are crucial in promoting them; it’s a win-win for the town (visitors stay longer, hence spend more) and the park (more visitors to enjoy nature’s gifts). These data show why parks’ agencies need to work closely with town visitor centres as they are, in effect, de-facto park information centres, which are lacking or unstaffed in most parks.

The full Morgan Research reports contain a wealth of fascinating insights. For example, in 2010, the NSW Labor government created Murray Valley National Park. As with all conversions from state forest to national park, it was a controversial decision despite the large compensation payment, with then National Party leader John Barilaro vowing to revoke the park and resume logging.

The new park was first included in the Morgan surveys in 2014, with 370,000 visits recorded. By 2018, this had risen to 839,000 visits, placing it in the top 20 of most visited parks in NSW. Along with the adjacent Barmah National Park in Victoria, the two riverside parks play an important role in supporting local economies.

The NPWS website expands on this, stating national park visits are the centrepiece of NSW nature-based tourism which generates $21.3 billion in visitor expenditure. The thousands of urban and regional businesses benefiting from this revenue, when combined with the millions of satisfied users of our national parks, constitute a powerful lobby supporting and defending nature’s gifts against those who seek to damage them, including prime minister’s wishing to weaken our national environmental laws.

In our next article, we acknowledge those politicians who have championed national parks and nature’s gifts.

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