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How to benefit from Tassie's tourism boom but not bugger up what tourists come for

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Most afternoons, I walk down the path to my favourite swimming-hole in the world and dive in. And almost every day, I find someone or other — local or visitor alike — who remarks that there’s nowhere in the world quite like the Cataract Gorge. I can’t help but agree.
Peacocks and black cockatoos shriek at each other, while wallabies and fairy wrens dart in and out of the undergrowth; exotic sequoias, cypresses and rhododendrons stick out like dogs’ nuts against the dusty brown backdrop of native casuarinas and blackwoods. A rotunda sits among the ferns, by a quaint café selling ice-creams and Devonshire tea. Tourists and joggers jostle each other on a path running along the cliffs above the South Esk River, as the river runs out towards the town of Launceston.
Over the dark blue river basin, the set-pieces of a chairlift quietly move. An electric blue pool sits next to it; on sunny days this summer, both bodies of water will be busy with the bodies of young and old, of all demographics.
German backpackers dive in next to swarms of flirting teenagers who go to school a ten minute walk away. Migrant parents watching their kids learn to swim sit in the shade between two trees, where a slackliner plies his trade. A couple of tradies just knocked off swim alongside professors from the University of Tasmania.
All of this is within a short walk from the city centre of Launceston. In fact, I can reach the entrance of the Gorge from my bedroom, by foot, in less than a minute.
It’s also free.
Launceston (pronounced LON-ces-ton, for the uninitiated) is a charming little city with plenty of Georgian architecture, close proximity to good wine, and somewhat of a chip on its shoulder. While Tassie has emerged somewhat from the “Tipping Point” purgatory (riding on the shoulders of David Walsh and a tourist influx), Launceston still suffers from the odd empty shopfront in the CBD. and a stagnant population. We don’t have MONA, and we know it.
Tourists, of course, are coming to Launceston too. Record numbers keep flying into our humble airport on the outskirts of town, skidding onto the tarmac with hazy blue Ben Lomond behind them. The Cataract Gorge is likely the first place they’ll go. It’s a source of consternation for those observing our town’s pecuniary situation is that they might have a great day at the swimming-hole without contributing much to our economy at all.
Okay, they might jump on the chairlift ($15 return), have a crack at the Devonshire tea ($7.50) or even opt for a bag of chips ($4). But they may alternatively spend nothing during their time at the Cataract Gorge at all, a feat which seems to have come to concerned attention of councillors and developers alike.
The local council, understandably, is trying to work out how to maximise the tourist dollar in our fair town. And they aren’t the only ones. All around Tassie, we are trying to work out how to make the most of the fact that all of a sudden folks are coming here in droves, to taste leatherwood honey and drink pinot noir and climb Jurassic mountains and visit colonial gaols.
I work in the tourism sector and I am well pleased with the idea that more punters means I get paid more to go out bushwalking with them more often. But I also think it’s unwise to put all our eggs in the tourism basket, or (to labour the metaphor) to try and pump the hen with hormones to make it plop out more eggs altogether.
The next step for the Gorge is still in the balance. The council has expressed its desire to ‘reimagine’ the site, and Launceston developers JAC Group — headed by octogenarian winemaker Joseph Chromy — have come to the party with an ambitious plan. JAC Group is currently redeveloping the adjacent Penny Royal Gunpowder Mill, and want to include a gondola from their site to the heart of the Gorge as part of it.
The Gorgeweb
The Penny Royal redevelopment already includes accommodation, a whisky distillery, a brewery, and a sort of children’s ride with animatronic bushrangers. The managing director of the project, Dean Cocker, says “the development will be an adventure precinct on steroids.” It also aims to turn the Kings Bridge site into the major entrance to the Gorge, with a 60-space carpark proposed.
Throughout 2015 they’ve cleared away at a small corner of bushland behind the charming old stone buildings of the Penny Royal site, but it’s the “SkyLift” gondola proposal that has worried some Launcestonians. Over 1000 people have signed up to a Facebook group called “Hands off the Gorge” (including me). They argue that the Cataract Gorge is perfectly fine the way that it is, and that the Gorge does not “suffer” from having its main carpark a three minute drive from the centre of the city.
They are also demanding accountability and transparency for both council and developers. Back in April, the Launceston City Council logo was used on a JAC Group brochure. Launceston City Council manager Robert Dobrzynski said the usage was unauthorised, but as a local reporter wrote, this gave “the impression it (the council) is supportive of the proposal”. Whatever the outcome, given the dense networks between Tasmanian politics and business, as well as a history of nepotism on the island, demands for accountability and transparency are not unreasonable.
A phone poll commissioned by JAC Group in July 2015 showed that 77 per cent of the 600 residents and business contacted were in favour of the development, on the back of full-page advertisements in the Launceston Examiner in June urging the “silent majority” to show their support for the project.
But it may be that the majority don’t think the Gorge needs reimagining at all. As I was recently told by a Canadian woman who moved to Launceston to study at the world-renowned Australian Maritime College, the Cataract Gorge was impressive enough. “The further I walked into it, the more incredible it was,” she said.
A grant of about $4 million has been asked from the Launceston City Council by the JAC Group, half of the development’s estimated $8 million total cost. Of course, the JAC Group and its chief developer Dean Cocker are well-known to the council — as all public figures in Launceston are well-known to each other. Bass MP Andrew Nikolic, who has had a pretty ordinary term in office and is facing the axe in the next election, may be drawn into offering Federal money for the issue to save his seat.
It’s awfully reminiscent of the wrangling over a cable-car from Hobart to the top of Mount Wellington, which continues after decades of debate. And in many ways, it’s related to the expansion of tourism operators in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage, and to the proposed relocation of the University of Tasmania Arts School off the Hobart waterfront so it can instead become home to a high-end hotel.
“Tasmania has long endured a troubled relationship with progress and futurity,” one academic has written, “so that, more often than not, it is characterised as being stuck in a frieze of underdevelopment, lagging at various distances behind the times”. Like many other communities comparing themselves to places with a better economy than its own, we sometimes seem to be trying doggedly to pursue ideas that have been tried, tested and rejected elsewhere.
Suddenly visitors are coming to us and looking admirably at things like our preservation of wilderness and architecture, which have often been destroyed in other places. What they may not understand is that we would have probably done the same if we’d been able to exploit an economic potential to do so — at least until political potential was noticed in the 1980s, and the wilderness was, as they say, “locked up”.
The term phrase “locked up” is utterly misleading of course — I happen to roam freely in the World Heritage Area on a regular basis, without even needing to open a gate — and the common labelling of Tasmanians reluctant to see their places changed “the anti-everything brigade” is cynical and nasty.
Like anyone, I hope Launnie, and all parts of Tassie, can see plenty of benefit from increased tourism. But we must not jeopardise the things that are bringing tourists here, or bugger around with too much of what makes Tasmania a good place to live. This island is a special place because it has its Cataract Gorges and Mount Wellingtons, free and accessible and next to our bustling metropolises.
We have seen the threat of what an exploitative attitude might do recently, with Lonely Planet’s ‘Best of Travel 2016’ stating that “now is the time to experience” Tasmania, and in particular its wild places, “before compromises are made.”
Whatever the veracity of that statement, the truth is that tourism is a fickle industry and our reputation among tourists ought to be handled with care. Which is not something Tasmanians — politicians and developers especially –have been particularly good at.
On the other hand, having exterminated a lot on this unique island, there is a pretty high sensitivity to the threat of permanent losses. “The anti-everything brigade” — those resistant to change — would argue that they are seeing a bigger picture: that much of what stands to be lost in Tasmania can be found nowhere else, and that some of what used to be uniquely to the island has gone forever.
It would be a shame for this to happen to the Cataract Gorge as the Launceston City Council reimagines a place that has been a special meeting place to locals since Europeans first journeyed up the Tamar River and built a town there –and, of course, to the Letteremairrener people for millennia before them.

8 responses to “How to benefit from Tassie's tourism boom but not bugger up what tourists come for

  1. Great to see this looming Tasmanian issue addressed. As convenor of ‘Hands off the Gorge’ I would go a lot further than Burt has in his assessment of the current local government’s management of this truly wondrous gem in downtown Launceston. The Launceston City Council have been found lacking in their custodianship of a remarkable community asset, deceptive in their communication, shown ignorance towards local indigenous groups, and done the bidding of a private developer in the guise of community consultation. Of course it is obvious as to why, as all around Tasmania entrepreneurs line up for a slice of the people’s commons – not for the benefit of nature, the palawa people, Tasmanians or travellers, but for themselves. To quote Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle, “I’m really starting to understand how the Aborigines feel”. The Gorge is this city’s heart, our beach, our nature, our wilderness. High time it was put into a trust that will protect it for all time for all people.

    1. Another quote from the Castle, “your dreaming”. Tasmanian tourism as you bleeding hearts keep bleating is not all based on seeing trees. This left wing crap will see Launceston as the NW Coast, an afterthought for visitors, as for Mona, well each to their own. Can’t dress up a turd unless you are David Walsh apparently.

  2. Ah Brett Lewis – what a cynic. Happily your views aren’t shared by thinking people. Tourists come here to see something they can’t get anywhere else – wilderness, or at least an approximation of it. Tassie is one of the very last few places on earth where you can stand in a forest and hear……nothing. Cashed-up tourists pay for that privilege. They can get chair-lifts and coffee stands and souvenir booths anywhere. The silence of unspoiled nature – almost nowhere.

  3. Brett Lucas’s response seems to completely miss the point. The reason why there are tourists in Tasmania is because of its natural attributes. Adding a theme park reduces it to the same boring thing found all over the world, a bit like the latest shopping mall. Who benefits? The developers, of course. Who doesn’t? Those who value the difference that makes it special and therefore attractive. It happens all over the world and nobody seems to learn. Typically building a 5 star hotel within walking distance of the presumed ‘site’ changes the very nature of the ‘site’. Beware what you wish for.

  4. Fortunately for us ‘anti-everythingers’ the best argument against the sentiments of people like Brett Lewis, is Brett Lewis.

  5. Sounds like a lovey gorge. I must go to Tassie one of these days, I hear the motorcycling is excellent.
    To sum up:
    “They paved paradise
    And put up a parking lot
    With a pink hotel, a boutique
    And a swinging hot SPOT
    Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got
    ‘Til it’s gone
    They paved paradise
    And put up a parking lot
    “They took all the trees
    And put them in a tree museum
    Then they charged the people
    A dollar and a half just to see ’em
    Don’t it always seem to go,
    That you don’t know what you’ve got
    ‘Til it’s gone
    They paved paradise
    And put up a parking lot”

  6. As an old (maybe very old) Lonnie boy and frequent visitor back to my stamping grounds I was both pleased and horrified by Bert’s article.Still reeling from reading that south west bush walking was going to cost a fortune to cater for high end tourists,I choked on my weeties reading the Cataract Gorge was being “reimagined”.The council needs to be reminded that the very popularity of the gorge is its peace,tranquility and unspoiled nature.
    Also of concern is the government’s apparent intention of leasing of tourist sites to private operators.Anyone been to the Lava Tubes in north Queensland? Leased by the Queensland Govt to commercial interests you cannot now camp within cooee of the tubes,you must stay in their accommodation and you must take their overpriced tours if you want to see the tubes.
    Let me know when you are marching down Brisbane Street..I’ll carry a banner.
    And yes Richard,Tasmania is a great place to bike,tent on the tank and a pair of saddlebags is all you need.

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