A couple of current political controversies in the NT might be of some interest to a wider audience. The first is John Howard’s announcement yesterday that park entry fees into Kakadu will be scrapped completely from 1 January 2005. At the moment they’re $16.25 per head, as Jen and I discovered during our recent expedition into the manicured wilderness theme park.
Leaving aside the blatantly pork-barrelling nature of the move given that Solomon (Darwin and surrounds) is the nation’s most marginal federal seat, I have mixed feelings about the announcement. Anything that keeps costs down for tourists is certainly a good thing in a narrow sense for the Territory economy. It encourages them to come and stay longer, and tourism has certainly become the mainstay of the NT economy, as the contrast between last year’s abysmal tourist season and this year’s booming one starkly demonstrates. And it’s also good for locals who might want to visit Kakadu frequently for recreational purposes, but have been deterred until now by the entry fees. For my part, the only areas I’d be interested in visiting more frequently are Gunlom (UPD) Falls and the nearby Koolpin Gorge, both in the southern part of the Park. Pretty well all the other major attractions are already far too crowded and tightly controlled for my taste.
But the crowding issue is also part of the downside of scrapping park fees. To the extent that the move attracts more tourists to Kakadu, it also potentially degrades the quality of the wilderness experience still further. You already have to use quite a lot of imagination to feel how magic and sacred places like Ubirr, Nourlangie Rock and Jim Jim Falls would be if they weren’t packed with wall-to-wall tourists. However, maybe I’m just hypersensitive to that sort of thing, because I’ve been to these spots when they really were remote, uncrowded wilderness. It seems that most tourists aren’t deterred or disappointed by being part of a thronging mass of gawkers; it’s what they’re used to experiencing wherever they go.
A more important potential problem is the effect on available revenue. Howard has publicly assured Aboriginal traditional owners that the revenue stream available to them will be maintained (although whether they should trust him is another matter). But nothing has been said about maintenance of funding to Parks Australia, the park’s manager (jointly with traditional owners). If tourist numbers into Kakadu are set to increase, they’ll need more money for facilities and services, not less. And if revenue generated from park fees is to cease, that can only come from an increase in direct Commonwealth funding to Parks Australia.