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Australia weighs conservation vs tourism in Blue Mountains

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Preserving Blue Mountains National Park
  • More than 500,000 people visited Blue Mountains last year, but that's a big drop on previous years
  • Local authorities want to balance conservation with the need for tourist spending
  • A new tourism strategy aims to attract visitors seeking comfort

(CNN) -- More than half a million people a year flock to the Blue Mountains National Park, Australia's most accessible wilderness, to see its impressive peaks and ancient rainforest.

But Australia is grappling with a dilemma: how to balance conservation with the need for tourist spending.

"Although it looks gorgeous and beautiful it is a park under pressure -- there are a lot of vulnerable species in this national park," said Tara Cameron, a local teacher and President of Blue Mountains Conservation Society.

"It's not a completely resilient piece of nature we can do anything with."

Maintaining wilderness is an expensive business, and visitor numbers have fallen in recent years.

Everybody is looking for how we can make national parks relevant into the future.
--Penelope Figgis, government advisor on conservation and tourism

The number of trips including an overnight stay has almost halved in the last decade, from 1.045 million in 1999, according to Tourism Research Australia figures quoted in the Sydney Daily Telegraph.

They show an 18 percent drop in one year, from 687,000 in 2008 to 563,000 last year.

The New South Wales government now wants to increase both tourist numbers and spending by attracting visitors interested in a more comfortable, less rugged experience.

Its tourism strategy has attracted criticism for refusing to rule out development within the park.

Mark Jarvis, who runs a hotel in Katoomba, the main tourist town in the Blue Mountains, just an hour and a half from Sydney, said: "We're very concerned because the uniqueness of area revolves around the fact that we sit in between World Heritage parks.

"So the fact that they are looking at developing, the fact that if there is a potential to do it, it's not right for this area.

"It's not in Sydney's interests to see this area develop -- the attraction for Sydney people to come here is our lack of development."

Cameron agreed: "What I see happening in New South Wales is a distraction and diversion away from nature conservation as the primary purpose of parks -- and if we don't focus on that the standards and the state of our parks will slowly decline."

However, Randal Walker, chairman of Blue Mountains Tourism, argued that it is possible to develop sustainable tourism without damaging the natural beauty that visitors come to see.

"If there was increased interest in development, I think those investors would only do it in terms of: is it sustainable?" said Walker. "Is there going to be a return on investment? And it's going to be in built-up areas where zoning allows it. I don't think there would be any development that would be a negative impact on the environment."

"We have to have a sustainable impact on the natural asset, which all tourism operators value and treasure and want to preserve."

Penelope Figgis, a government advisor on conservation and tourism, also believes the park has to develop.

She said: "Everybody is looking for how we can make national parks relevant into the future. We have very urbanized population who are not as connected with nature.

"The New South Wales government wanted to see how we could connect with nature but also at the same time stimulate regional economies through tourism activities related to nature conservation.

"I can't think of a better way to persuade somebody to be an advocate for a beautiful and wild area than going there and immersing themselves in that experience," she added.

The danger in this quest for something new, is turning nature into a commodity, argued Cameron.

"I think national parks and nature is worth more than just being the new thing, the sort of new product," she said.

"We have 92 percent of the state of New South Wales that is taken up by people.

"Only eight percent is national park. They're the bits that we've put aside for nature -- do we really need to encroach on those as well.

"The coffee shop is not an endangered species. Humans are doing very well -- we are looking after ourselves very well. At some point we need to say: 'When is it nature's turn?'"

Catriona Davies contributed to this report