Straight lines in nature: rainforest tourism and forest viewing constructions
journal contributionposted on 08.06.2017, 00:39 by Frost, Warwick
The 1980s and 1990s have seen a great increase in public awareness and appreciation of rainforests, resulting in increased tourist visitation to rainforests in Eastern Australia. To cater for these increased numbers and the growing expectations of visitors, public land managers have developed a range of what I will term 'rainforest viewing constructions' to enhance the visitor experience. These range from interpretative walking tracks with either fixed signage and displays or printed guides to more complex and expensive elevated walkways and platforms. The increased interest in rainforests is part of the greater interest in modem tourists in using their holidays to learn and expand their knowledge of the world. Tourists are no longer only interested in sand and surf, they are more likely to want to explore and to develop a greater understanding of different cultures and physical environments. This rise of knowledge-based tourism is manifested in the increased importance of the 'eco-tourist' and 'cultural-tourist'. As defined in Australia's National ecotowism strategy, 'Ecotourism is nature-based tourism that involves education and interpretation of the natural environment' (Australia, Department of Tourism, 1994: 19). The increased interest in and controversy regarding rainforests worldwide have made Australian rainforests especially attractive to tourists. They are aware that these are special complex eco-systems, containing an amazingly range of flora and fauna, are relatively rare and under tremendous threat from human activity. Indeed, such is the value of rainforests and the dangers they face, that they have become a worldwide symbol of the environmental movement. For many tourists, visiting a rainforest is exotic and satisfying, a special rare experience, for some a pilgrimage. For the managers of rainforests increased tourist numbers have created a series of conundrums. First is what has been termed the 'paradox of managing heritage' (Hall and McArthur: 1996, 3-4), that is how to balance providing access and a satisfying experience with protection of the rainforest environment. Second, providing useful information for knowledge-hungry tourists is often difficult. Scientific explanations of rainforests are extremely complex, Australia contains six different types and even the definition of what constitutes a rainforest is the subject of a great controversy. How can managers impart this knowledge without making it alienating by either being too complicated or too simple? Rainforest managers having to juggle the arguments of the competing and conflicting interest groups in the conservation debate further compound the problem. Which view is the right one? Whichever position is taken, some group is likely to disagree and complain. Taking a non-confrontationist position may just lead to bland statements which are just as unsatisfying. Third, the establishment and maintenance of viewing constructions and interpretative facilities is expensive. Much depends on continued public interest and the impact of competing attractions. Private tour operators, it has been argued, are proving more successful than public land managers at providing satisfying interpretation and experiences for visitors and at increasing revenue as a result (Hundloe: 1996; Hall and McArthur: 1996, 88-90). Most public land managers in Australia are now adopting a user pays philosophy and some are encouraging private operators in order to reduce costs. Are expensive viewing constructions the spearhead of this movement towards commercialisation? Do they by the size of the capital involved demand increased commercialisation of the environment? Fourth, tourists value an authentic experience, but authenticity may take two forms. The first may be subjective, that is the tourist feels enriched by visiting a seemingly unspoilt natural setting which contrasts to the problems and alienation of the modern world. Certainly many visitors see rainforests in exactly that light. The second view of authenticity is that the experience must be objectively true, that is the rainforest is really a rainforest (Selwyn, 1996: 6-7). For rainforest managers there is a delicate balancing act between enhancing the experiences and satisfaction of tourists whilst avoiding impressions of artificiality and commercialism.
The purpose of this article is to consider the issues which arise from increased tourist visitation to rainforests and the resulting expansion of viewing constructions. The focus is on publicly managed rainforests and in particular six public rainforest attractions in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. A broad comparative approach has been taken, as typically the scanty literature on this topic has tended to focus on case studies of individual sites or regional clusters. In contrast to such case study approaches, which may be confused by local issues, the comparative approach seeks to identify broader issues and trends. The article is divided into three sections. The first describes the six attractions under consideration and their main competitors. The second considers how viewing constructions are used to educate knowledge-hungry tourists about complex rainforest issues. The third considers how viewing constructions may affect the viewing experience and how such constructions may be improved.