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Sharks a real threat to our tourism industry

24 April 2018

Libby Mettam

 

This week saw Western Australia placed on the international stage for all of the wrong reasons, with WA securing the title of the nation’s shark capital, following the two shark attacks near Gracetown, and the subsequent cancellation of WA’s only international sporting event – the Margaret River Surf Pro.

While life moves on for the high-profile professional surfers and the millions of World Surfing League series fans, the impact of this decision and the uncertainty over the future of the Margaret River Pro is devastating for both the local Margaret River economy and the broader WA tourism industry.

The Margaret River region’s reputation as a surfing mecca is now in tatters, and hardest hit are the numerous small businesses throughout the South West.  The Margaret River Pro is a major tourism drawcard for the South West, injecting an estimated $5.5 million into the local economy each year by bringing thousands of international and interstate visitors to the region to spend money on accommodation, in cafes, wineries and surf shops.

However, the real issue is the impact the cancellation of this major international event will have on future visitor numbers to Western Australia, which continue to decline under the stewardship of the McGowan Government.

More than 18 million surfing fans visited the Margaret River Pro website last year, and the event draws an international television audience of just under eight million, which is a tremendous showcase not only for the South West, but for all of WA. However, given media organisations around the world have this week reported on shark attacks and professional surfers afraid to enter the water, our State’s reputation as a tourism destination is  being tarnished.

Despite Tourism Minister Paul Papalia preaching to the West Australian public that the cancellation of the Margaret River Pro “will not impact on tourism because most visitors don’t surf”; the fact is, “perception is reality”.

Indeed, when he spruiked the commencement of the Margaret River Pro, the Minister made the point that hosting international sporting events was to driving visitation, including changing perceptions of Perth and attracting more people, more often to regional WA.

Regrettably, the Government’s failure to implement a comprehensive shark mitigation policy is changing perceptions, for the worst – and we should be concerned when it comes to our biggest international tourism market – China.

According to Tourism Australia’s Traveller Snapshot 2017: “Chinese travellers choose a destination based on world-class nature, good food and wine, aquatic and coastal experiences and spectacular coastal scenery. A destination must also satisfy the rational factors of safety and security and value for money.”

With over 62 per cent of Chinese visitors indicating, “Australian beaches [are] an appealing Australian attraction”, any negative perception associated with our prime tourism attractions cannot be treated flippantly by the Government. What is needed is action: action to ensure public safety in our coastal waters, action to ensure we retain our major events and action to attract tourists and assure them we are a fun, vibrant and safe place to visit.

International events like the Margaret River Pro are hard to come by. They are even harder to retain. So far five open water events in the past 12 months have been interrupted due to shark safety issues, and given that surfing will debut as an Olympic event in 2020 in Tokyo, international interest in the sport will only increase.  The McGowan Government needs to take the matter of shark mitigation seriously.

In recent years, more people, especially tourists, are participating in activities that put them directly in the shark’s home territory, like swimming, snorkelling, stand-up paddle boarding and sea kayaking. Obviously the more people that wade into the shark’s world, the more likely there can be human-shark encounters .

What is needed is a comprehensive and proactive shark mitigation policy - one  that includes using more than one brand of shark deterrent for a select few - and one that takes a realistic, apolitical approach in considering the use of SMART drumlines and clever buoys, which have been a success in NSW and Queensland.

If the McGowan Government is serious about increasing our visitor numbers, and supporting our tourism industry, they need to ensure one of our most important tourism assets – our beaches – are safe to enjoy.

 

- Libby Mettam MLA, Shadow Minister for Tourism