In Australia, as in many other parts of the world, open and unrestricted visitor access is the default policy setting for most protected natural areas, including World Heritage sites. There appears to be considerable reluctance among policy makers and natural resource managers to introduce any form of demand management to areas currently managed under an open-access policy. This is despite considerable evidence that, in many cases, current levels of visitation are unsustainable in terms of impact on the environment and the recreational experience. Moreover, there seems to be little, if any, concerted research undertaken to explore visitors’ preferences for alternative management regimes to justify the current anti-rationing stance; it is simply assumed that visitors would oppose any rationing or demand management mechanism. The primary purpose of this thesis is to test this assumption.
Lake McKenzie, situated on the World Heritage listed Fraser Island, serves as a case study site. One of the most highly visited and popular visitor destinations of all the sites on Fraser Island, Lake McKenzie has a long history of conflict between user groups. Ranked as the site most under pressure from tourism on the Island, an evaluation of desired site capacities concluded that usage of the Lake exceeds its carrying capacity in terms of desired recreational experience within a World Heritage Area (EDAW, 2002).
As a first step, a survey of visitors to Fraser Island is conducted using both traditional mail and web-based survey modes. For the most part, no significant difference is found between the samples elicited from each survey mode in regards to socio-demographic, attitudinal or trip-specific variables. Moreover, no significant difference is found in welfare estimates. These results lend support to the use of the Internet as a survey tool.
The recreational value associated with current visitation is estimated using the zonal travel cost method. Using a combined sample from both survey modes, the results suggest an annual recreational value of Fraser Island for Australian-resident, independent, visitors of $183.9 million or $1 327 per-person per-visit. For Lake McKenzie, this value ranges from $13.0 million ($94 per-person per-visit) to $30.5 million ($220 per-person per-visit) depending on the allocation method used.
A choice model is then developed to answer two questions: (1) To what extent are visitors willing to forego access to publicly owned protected natural areas in order to ensure less crowding and/or obtain better environmental outcomes? And (2) if access is to be restricted, how should any remaining access rights be allocated? The value estimates obtained from the choice model yield the following results. First, respondents were, in general, willing to trade-off some degree of access rights for better environmental outcomes and reduced crowding. While both lead to relatively significant welfare gains, improvements in the quality of the environment are more highly valued than reductions in crowding. In regards to choice of rationing mechanism, it is clear that the ‘economist’s choice’, peak pricing, is not supported by the community, whereas visitor caps and four-wheel drive access restrictions have general support; although segments of the population are opposed to the latter. Further, there is strong evidence of diminishing returns to both environmental improvement and reductions in crowding. This suggests most of the available welfare gains can be obtained with relatively minor improvements in the condition of the resource and the recreational experience. In all, clear evidence is found that, despite the common perception of policy makers and natural resource managers, the current ‘open-access at all costs’ policy is not widely supported by the visiting public and deserves reconsideration.