//Visiting the Great Barrier Reef

Visiting the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s most amazing sights. James Litston looks at how to visit – and help protect – this natural wonder.

Among the Grand Canyon, Himalayas and other world icons visible from space, only one – Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – has the distinction of being alive. Stretching for 2,300km and spanning the equivalent of 70 million football fields, its islands, cays and reefs are the product of countless coral organisms. This vast, living structure parallels the Queensland coast all the way to Cape York and provides a home to myriad fish, birds and sharks, not to mention whales, dolphins, dugongs and six different types of sea turtle.

Above the surface lie castaway isles, ancient rainforests and some of the world’s best beaches, many of which are footprint-free beyond those left by nesting turtles. Scattered here and there are frontier towns and modern resorts that cater to backpackers, couples and families, plus luxurious island escapes for the very top end of the market. From the Southern Reef’s Lady Elliott Island up to Lizard Island in the north, clients will find reef experiences for every budget, type and style.

Little wonder then that the Great Barrier Reef features prominently on many a bucket-list. Research by Tourism Australia indicates that it’s “the number one experience preference for travellers coming to Australia”, something that the regional tourist board is eager to leverage. “We know the Great Barrier Reef is a massive draw for this part of Australia,” says Jane Nicholson, International Director UK, Tourism and Events Queensland. “As a result, tour operators have grown their product ranges to include different ways to experience the Reef, from day-trips and island stays to sailing, diving and helicopter flights.” 

Among the Grand Canyon, Himalayas and other world icons visible from space, only one – Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – has the distinction of being alive. Stretching for 2,300km and spanning the equivalent of 70 million football fields, its islands, cays and reefs are the product of countless coral organisms. This vast, living structure parallels the Queensland coast all the way to Cape York and provides a home to myriad fish, birds and sharks, not to mention whales, dolphins, dugongs and six different types of sea turtle.

Above the surface lie castaway isles, ancient rainforests and some of the world’s best beaches, many of which are footprint-free beyond those left by nesting turtles. Scattered here and there are frontier towns and modern resorts that cater to backpackers, couples and families, plus luxurious island escapes for the very top end of the market. From the Southern Reef’s Lady Elliott Island up to Lizard Island in the north, clients will find reef experiences for every budget, type and style.

Little wonder then that the Great Barrier Reef features prominently on many a bucket-list. Research by Tourism Australia indicates that it’s “the number one experience preference for travellers coming to Australia”, something that the regional tourist board is eager to leverage. “We know the Great Barrier Reef is a massive draw for this part of Australia,” says Jane Nicholson, International Director UK, Tourism and Events Queensland. “As a result, tour operators have grown their product ranges to include different ways to experience the Reef, from day-trips and island stays to sailing, diving and helicopter flights.” 

On the market
One such operator is Kuoni, which offers a range of exploratory options from the gateways of Cairns, Port Douglas and Hamilton Island. “Customers can choose from large, pontoon-based excursions or smaller vessels,” says Senior Product Executive, Tom Waite. “We’ve also just reintroduced Coral Expeditions’ immersive three, four and seven-night cruises from Cairns in response to increased demand for more in-depth and rewarding Reef discoveries.”

Coral Expeditions is an ideal choice for clients seeking to experience different aspects of the Reef. Its flexible, year-round sailings fit easily into a wider Australia itinerary and allow the chance to snorkel and dive on unspoiled, little-visited offshore reefs (glass-bottomed boat tours are also available for those keen to keep their hair dry). The small-ship ethos ensures a balance between comfort and adventure, while visits to mangroves, rainforests and remote reefs and settlements add to the mix.

What’s more, Coral allows clients to understand the threats the Reef faces, and the importance of conservation. The company supports initiatives such as Eye on the Reef and Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef (which engage visitors and local communities on the importance of healthy marine environments) and has been committed to responsible practices since launching operations here 30 years ago. Its structured itineraries also ensure that individual sites are only visited once per week to minimise disturbance.

Trouble in paradise

Stepping lightly

In tandem with the growth in demand for visiting the Reef is an awareness of its vulnerability. In 2016, an episode of bleaching – when warmer-than-normal sea temperatures cause corals to lose their colour – was so extreme that a third of the Reef’s corals died. The phenomenon struck again last year, particularly in the Reef’s northern reaches. Although improved conditions saw significant recovery in 2018, climate change is compounded by pollution, overfishing, shipping and coastal development to make this natural wonder less resilient to environmental stress.

On the flip side, this summer saw the establishment of the Coral Sea Marine Park, which abuts the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to create one of the world’s largest protected areas.

Another leading light in responsible tourism on the Reef is Lady Elliot Island, a single-island resort on its southernmost fringe. As well as cutting fuel consumption by switching to solar power and more efficient water desalination, Lady Elliot’s owners have restored habitat for nesting seabirds and are careful to ensure that lights don’t interfere with sea turtle activity. The island now welcomes nearly 60 bird species and its green turtle population is increasing.

“It’s also known for reliable manta ray sightings”, reveals Charlie Adams, Regional Destination Manager at Austravel, for whom Lady Elliot is an in-demand product. “The range of accommodation options from cabins to two-bedroom suites makes it suitable for clients on various budgets. There are snorkelling, diving and tours on boats or kayaks with see-through bottoms, plus bird-watching and turtle safaris (in season) to watch hatchlings dash to the sea.

New for ’19
As for other island escapes, the Whitsundays are increasingly popular thanks to the pulling power of Whitehaven Beach, not to mention easy access by air or ferry from the mainland. The archipelago is particularly newsworthy for its new and updated accommodations following a major setback when Cyclone Debbie tore through in April 2017. Daydream Island Resort and Spa – a favourite with families – was devastated and is still undergoing a AU$100 million redevelopment. It is due to reopen later this year as an upgraded 4.5-star retreat with 290 rooms and suites, five bars and three restaurants.

Also soon to re-launch is Hayman Island, which was utterly destroyed by the storm. Following another AU$100 million investment, the resort (formerly a One&Only) will reopen in early 2019 as a 166-room InterContinental.

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Qualia, on Hamilton Island, is another seriously luxurious resort but was much less badly damaged, reopening after just three months. Its 60 free-standing, sea-view pavilions, all tucked into natural vegetation, have long made it a big producer for ITC. The company’s Australia product manager, David Pointer, says, “Along with Lizard Island, Qualia does very well with our clients. We’ve just expanded our Australia programme beyond these luxury hotel stays to offer
a more tailor-made, multi-centre portfolio, which goes on sale this month.”

Back on the mainland, there’s further invigoration of the hotel scene in Cairns with the opening of Riley (located on the Esplanade) this month. The first of four properties under the Crystalbrook Collection brand, it’s slated to offer an “ultra-modern urban escape” with its own personality and a host of laudable green initiatives. Three sister properties
– Bailey, Flynn and Harper – will open in the next few years, each with a signature twist.

Add in the likes of rainforest hikes and authentic Aboriginal encounters and it’s clear that clients can expect far more than coral from the Barrier Reef. And with so many options to visit it responsibly and sustainably, there’s no better way to experience this wonder of the natural world.

Interview

Kerry Golds, managing director, Abercrombie & Kent

What’s hot on the GBR right now?
Hamilton Island remains a firm favourite, especially iconic Qualia: every element of this fabulous resort is perfectly designed. Elsewhere, Cairns has rainforest hills and a harbour full of boats to take clients to the Reef. Savvy travellers head an hour north to Port Douglas, gateway to the Daintree Rainforest, where the five-star Pullman Port Douglas Sea Temple Resort & Spa (located on Four Mile Beach) sells well for us.

Are you noticing any new trends?
We’re seeing a spike in people returning to places where they backpacked when younger, but are now revisiting with considerably more style. We’re calling it “backpacker evolution”. With more efficient air links, Australia is more accessible than ever and is no longer for just once in a lifetime.

Why is it popular?
The Great Barrier Reef is the jewel in Australia’s crown and really resonates with the UK market, especially in the wake of Blue Planet 2. Clients can mix island-hopping with coastal getaways. It’s also one of very few places in the world where two Unesco World Heritage sites meet – the Daintree Rainforest and the Reef itself.

What do customers package the Reef with as part of their holiday Down Under?
For first-timers, it’s always Sydney, Rock & Reef. Repeat visitors tend to go back to the classics, but we’re also seeing growth in Western Australia on the back of the non-stop Qantas flights, plus South Australia and the Northern Territory for their exceptional Outback experiences.

ABTA Magazine – November 2018

The November 2018 issue of ABTA Magazine is the fourth created by Waterfront Publishing.

With an exciting new look, feel and ethos, the magazine has a renewed focus on industry news. In this issue, Nicky Holford looks at the 2019 ski season; James Litston visits the Great Barrier Reef; Anthony Pearce heads to Hokkaido, Japan; plus, there’s an exclusive interview with G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip. Click on the cover to read the magazine in full or subscribe here.