Indigenous Coral Reef Tourism

Henrietta Marrie
Led by: Assoc Prof Henrietta Marrie, CQU


Project Summary

Despite the seemingly abundant opportunities, Indigenous Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef appear to show little interest in participating in the lucrative coral reef tourism industry. This project seeks to understand why this is so, canvass TO attitudes to the industry, map out the opportunities for their participation in both mainstream and Indigenous-initiated ventures, and provide an assessment of current obstacles and what can be done to mitigate them. Research will be undertaken through a combination of surveys (e.g., of tourism industry literature), consultations with TO groups and regulatory authorities, and interviews with mainstream tourism operators (and their representative bodies). The project will result in a report with recommendations relevant to TO groups interested in coral reef tourism, mainstream tourism stakeholders and enterprises, industry bodies and regulatory and management authorities.


Project Publications
Final Report





Project Description

There currently is little contemporary information on TO participation in the GBR tourism industry and any economic benefits obtained from coral reef tourism. An improved understanding of TO’s aspirations for sustainable economic use of the Reef’s natural resources, particularly in relation to tourism, and a review of international models for Indigenous coral reef tourism will assist in policy development, target-setting and directing on-ground action associated with the implementation of Indigenous strategies in the  Reef 2050 Plan.

The relevant strategies in the Indigenous Implementation Plan (see p. 17) for the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan (p. 47) for improving economic participation include:


  • EBA1 Develop and implement an Indigenous Business Development Plan including a comprehensive review of baseline data, processes and systems to identify existing and potential economic benefits to Traditional Owners .
  • EBA2 Assist Traditional Owners to be business-ready and have improved capacity to generate economic benefits from use and management of their traditional estates


  • EBT1 There is an increase in the number of Traditional Owner service providers and viable businesses
  • EBT2 The number of employment opportunities for Traditional Owners in sea country management and Reef-based industries is increased.


  • EBO1 Traditional owners derive economic benefits from conservation and sustainable use of biological resources.

There is a need to identify where there is little or no Indigenous-owned Reef Tourism business and possible reasons why (eg, lack of: appropriate infrastructure, opportunity, industry-ready skills, access to capital,  etc.). It is also important to identify the range of opportunities for both on-shore activities (eg, reef-related art/artefact sales, cultural performances, hospitality, etc) and in situ reef activities (eg, diving, fishing, species watching, photography, etc).There is also a need for improved understanding of Indigenous perspectives on reef tourism (for example, whether or not it is encouraged within their traditional marine estates).

While there is ample literature on Indigenous tourism in Australia generally and a number of business guides produced over the last two decades for Indigenous people wanting to get into the industry, anecdotal evidence suggests that TOs show little interest in participating in coral reef tourism along the Great Barrier Reef. This project will progress through a number of stages:

  1. A literature review examining: mainstream academic and industry literature on tourism; Indigenous specific tourism literature particularly focusing on Australian marine and coastal area tourism ventures (including the GBR); and experiences of Indigenous peoples in other coral reef regions with a view to finding out about the range of activities, products and services they offer, and examples of best practice and pitfalls.
  2. Conduct a series of surveys and interviews with mainstream industry operators at a number of prime locations, and conduct consultations with TOs along the length of the GBR to ascertain their concerns, interests and varying regional opportunities for participation within coral reef tourism. The opportunity will also be taken to gauge their interest in a range of in-situ and ex-situ activities, products and services that might be available to them within the broad scope of the industry.
  3. Undertake an assessment of the regulatory regime governing the GBRMP to gauge the extent that it fosters Indigenous coral reef tourism participation and enterprise, taking into account native title rights and other marine rights and interests where they have been determined, particularly with regard to TUMRAs, IPAs, marine resource use permits and other commercial licences where they have been issued.
  4. Examine the role of both mainstream and Indigenous tourism representative and peak bodies as advocates for greater involvement of TOs in GBR tourism enterprises
  5. Produce a draft report for review by TOs, other project participants and industry and departmental bodies
  6. Produce a final report with an executive summary and recommendations directed to: GBR TOs and relevant Indigenous bodies and stakeholders; mainstream tourism bodies and stakeholders; the GBRMPA and its advisory bodies; and the DoSS and relevant Qld and other federal agencies.

1. How the research will be undertaken, including what is in and out of scope

Literature review to seek out other relevant overseas Indigenous coral reef tourism models. Information will be organised thematically in terms of:

  • major coral reef regions (South Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, the Coral Triangle [Southeast Asia/Western Pacific region], Oceania, the Caribbean, and the Red Sea);
  • tourism industry literature (tour guides, travel writers, brochures, etc.);
  • local-generated literature and studies (protection and application of reef-related traditional knowledge, cultural and social cost-benefit analyses, impacts on traditional livelihoods, marine tenure issues, etc.).
  • academic studies (tour operator and visitor surveys, economic analyses, local participation, impacts, etc.)
  • Australian and Queensland policies and industry regulation, tourism infrastructure.
  • international guidelines, regulation and monitoring (as undertaken, for example, under the International Coral Reef Initiative, the Convention on Biological Diversity, World Travel and Tourism Council, UNESCO, IUCN and WWF)
  • global, regional and local threats to Indigenous coral reef tourism (climate change, coral bleaching, rising sea levels, marine and terrestrial pollution, over-fishing, unsustainable levels of tourism visitation and activities, etc.).

Research will also involve structured and participatory surveys and interviews with TO’s along the GBR using deliberative dialogue to enable two-way learning in a transparent and participatory manner. The engagement process will be initiated utilising contacts with representatives of the 41 TO groups along the GBR. Standard social science research methodologies to gather more comprehensive data on the health and variation of local Indigenous coral reef tourism initiatives and aspirations will be undertaken.

Ethical clearance will be sought following the AIATSIS (2012) Guidelines on Ethical Research in Indigenous Studies.

2. Details of related prior research, if relevant

A recent study by Marrie (2017) has exposed a paucity of literature regarding Indigenous coral reef tourism (ICRT) both from Indigenous and industry perspectives. The study takes a comprehensive look at the subject, taking into account cultural and linguistic diversity of Indigenous coral reef communities (ICRC) worldwide, geo-political and national status, and the differences in historical experiences. The study examines both in-situ and ex-situ­ involvement of Indigenous communities in coral reef tourism with regard to, for example, the application of traditional knowledge to both enhance and manage the visitor experience. The study also looks at the economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts of coral reef tourism on ICRCs and the role marine protected areas can have in assisting ICRCs to manage both tourism and their coral reef assets.

In 2016 the NESP Tropical Water Quality Hub funded a review of the aspirations surrounding engagement in the ongoing management of the Great Barrier Reef within the frame of the Reef 2050 Plan. The review was entitled Traditional Owners and Sea Country in the Southern Great Barrier Reef – Which Way Forward? This project builds on this work through the exploration of cultural and economic benefits that may be derived from Indigenous engagement in reef based tourism on the GBR.

3. How the project links to other research and/or the work of other Hubs.

1. NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub: Research Priorities

Research Priority 1: Maximising the efficacy of managing Australia’s marine environment.

1.3: Identify key social and economic values of the marine environment to build better stakeholder support and engagement in the management of marine and coastal environments.

Tourism is a key driver of both social and economic values of the GBR. Indigenous tourism will value-add and increase and broaden our understanding of both social and economic vales as well as cultural values. Insights from the project can be transported elsewhere.

Research Priority 3: Improving our understanding of the marine environment including biophysical, economic and social aspects

3.2: Meaningful and accessible information on the status and trends of key social and economic values associated with marine environment.

3.5: Identify key opportunities to collaborate and build Indigenous participation and knowledge into the management and protection of marine species.

The project will significantly add to our understanding of what drives Indigenous tourism, and particularly the range of perspectives and motivations that TOs have towards the industry the length of the GBR. Their knowledge and insights will add to our knowledge of the management and protection of marine species within the context of tourism and how this knowledge can be utilised to enhance and protect the values of the GBR.

2. NESP Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub: Research Priorities

Research Priority C: Understanding and measuring the conditions and trends of environmental, social and economic resources in northern Australia

C2: Participation of Indigenous people in environmental management across northern Australia including Indigenous Protected Areas.

The ultimate goal is, to the extent that TOs want to be involved, to create sustainable Indigenous coral reef tourism businesses. This, of necessity, entails some form of environmental management through the application of traditional knowledge for monitoring and optimal use of environmental/marine resources (for example, sustainable levels of reef visitation, respect for seasonality for photographing of certain species, eg whales, nesting turtles, migratory sea-birds, etc).

3. NESP Threatened Species Recovery Hub: Research Priorities

D2: Better understanding, measuring and reporting on the condition and trend of threatened species

D2.4: Improved information on the distribution of threatened species and ecological communities to better pinpoint their location. Including the review of current species distribution models, and incorporating the capacity for species to adapt to climate change.

D3: Using social and economic opportunities for threatened species recovery

D3.4: Collaborations with, and participation of, Indigenous people in threatened species research and management.

Greater engagement in the coral reef tourism industry will bring more Indigenous eyes to bear and report on, for example, movements of dugong populations after cyclonic weather events, health of sea-grass beds, state of coral reefs (particularly in remote locations) during and after coral bleaching events, COTS outbreaks, and health of turtle populations. Indigenous tour operators would also be able to report illegal activities that impact on threatened and vulnerable species, the presence of “ghost” nets, etc.

4. Summary of how it is expected that the research will be applied to inform decision-making and on-ground action.

This project aims to identify a wide range of possible tourism activities, products and services for consideration of TOs who might want to establish tourism businesses. Many of these, particularly those activities that take place within the GBRMP will have policy and management implications. The research will match activities with policy and management requirements, provide an assessment of their compatibility, and suggest modifications to either the activities or policies or both.


NESP 2017 Research Priority Alignment

This project aligns with the NESP 2017 Tropical Water Quality Research Priorities in relation to Theme 3.6: Explore the opportunities for citizen science and Indigenous participation to improve tropical water quality awareness and outcomes.


Project Keywords

Indigenous coral reef tourism; Reef 2050.


Project Funding

This project is jointly funded through CQU and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program.