22 December 2009

World Heritage listing can be a double-edged sword, a researcher from The University of Queensland’s School of Tourism has found.

Lecturer Dr Noreen Breakey believes World Heritage listing attracts tourists and can help educate people about the site’s historic, natural or cultural importance.

But this had to be weighed up against the impact tourists could have on these sites, Dr Breakey said.

Simply adding more and more sites to the list could also erode the World Heritage brand, she said.

The comments come as Dr Breakey completes research into visitor experiences at the Australian Fossil Mammal Site at Riversleigh World Heritage Area, north-west of Mt Isa.

Dr Breakey said Riversleigh was an important site because it contained fossils of extinct animals such as ancient crocodiles, meat-eating kangaroos, gigantic flightless birds and even a marsupial lion.

"Riversleigh shows the change over time," Dr Breakey said.

"The fossil sites span more than 10 million years of evolutionary development. This is important. People do go to the site because of World Heritage listing and to learn about the history of the area.

"But we need to balance the presentation with the protection of this valuable place.’’

World Heritage listing attracted some tourists to Riversleigh who would otherwise not go there, but the remote location and limited knowledge of the site resulted in low visitor levels.

"People will go to the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Wall of China because they are well-known.," Dr Breakey said.

"The question is whether it matters to tourists if these sites have World Heritage listing.

"World Heritage as a brand is increasingly being used by the tourism industry for promotion. The industry uses the power of the brand to tap into various markets.’’

But there were fears tourists damaging a heritage site could outweigh the educational value of having a site on the list, Dr Breakey said.

"There are a number of Australian sites being considered for World Heritage listing.

"Often the aim is protection. Yet such a powerful brand may bring additional tourists to our most vulnerable sites.

"Management plans and appropriate facilities and services would therefore need to be in place before listing occurs. If you want to protect it, there are other options such as biosphere reserves or geoparks.

"These don’t have the same appeal to tourists. They are interested in World Heritage sites.’’

Dr Breakey presented her findings with Queensland Department of Environmental Resources Management senior conservation officer Tamara Vallance last month at the Global Eco Conference and plans to present them at the World Heritage and Tourism Conference next year.

Media: Noreen Breakey (0413 186 638) or Erik de Wit (0417 088 772)