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lonely plight of the Great Barrier Reef

Shared from the 9/6/2020 The Denver Post eEdition

By Livia Albeck-Ripka
© The New York Times Co.

CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA»Diving beneath the ocean’s surface, Russell Hosp swam toward the limestone bed of the Great Barrier Reef, where he reattached bits of blue stag-horn coral. With tourists gone, he was filling the void with this small act of conservation.

“It was a bit surreal,” Hosp, a reef guide, said of spending hours at sea unaccompanied by the usual enthusiastic visitors. Aboard the quiet catamaran, he said, he realized just how much the corona-virus “had changed the world.”

The pandemic has fast-forwarded a looming reckoning for the tropical city of Cairns, the main gateway to the reef and the base for Hosp and many others whose livelihoods depend on it.

Tour operators there were already fighting a perception that the reef is in its death throes, as warming waters cause repeated mass bleaching that has robbed many corals of their vivid colors. But where climate change has been more of a creeping threat to the reef’s survival, and thus to Cairns’ tourism lifeblood, the coronavirus has delivered a hammer blow.

Now this city, so linked with the natural wonder just off its shore that it can scarcely imagine life without the visitors who come in droves, has been forced to confront the prospect that it can no longer depend on tourists.

Foreign and local travelers have all but vanished, and a $4.6 billion industry built around the world’s largest living structure has ground to a near halt.

The sudden disappearance of visitors feels all the more unreal because the virus itself has barely touched Cairns: The city of 150,000 people in far northeastern Australia has recorded only a couple of dozen cases and has none currently.

Visitors who usually cram the jetty every morning have dwindled from the thousands to a few hundred, leaving operators out of work, boats moored at the dock, and some hotels and restaurants shuttered.

“It’s been so quiet,” said Heather Forbes, a Cairns resident, adding that because the city had been dependent on tourism for so long, it was difficult to know how to diversify its economy.

It might seem that there was a silver lining in all this, that the exodus of tourists would be a boon for the health of a reef in critical condition.

But a prolonged downturn in visits to the reef could actually be detrimental to its well-being. Tourism provides a social and economic rationale for why the reef needs to be better protected.

The situation has prompted the Cairns region to look more critically at its dependence on international travelers, especially those from China, who make up a large portion of reef visitors.

“We’re realizing that we can’t rely on China,” said Samantha Davidson, a travel consultant at the Reef Info Visitor Center. “It’s good,” she added, because it’s sending a message to those closer to home: “Hey, come and see us.”

As recent flare-ups of the coronavirus have closed state borders within Australia, some people have taken the opportunity to explore their own (very large) backyards.

“We were supposed to be in Hawaii, but we said we still wanted to take a trip somewhere warm,” Alicia Dean said as she lounged in a sarong on the deck of a boat heading out to the reef.

She had traveled within the state of Queensland from Brisbane, the capital, to Cairns, more than 1,000 miles to the north.

And some foreigners, stranded in Australia, figured they may as well take the time to experience the reef, a World Heritage Site.

“My flight keeps getting canceled,” Julia Pape, a 27-year-old from Germany, said as she donned her flippers and wet suit, ready to plunge into the tropical waters.

Tourists like Dean and Pape, however, don’t make up for the hundreds of thousands of missing international arrivals in the region, the throngs who help support the jobs of more than 60,000 people (more than those employed by Australia’s oil and gas industry). Experts have warned that even with a vaccine, it may be years before travel returns to pre-coronavirus levels.

But while the idled boats and empty storefronts tell the story of a city shaken by Australia’s travel bans — which led overseas arrivals to collapse by 99.5% in May compared with the previous year — in other pockets of Cairns there is a sense of relief at having made a lucky escape from the threat of infection.

Real estate agents say the area has drawn some clients looking to flee the danger of COVID-19.

“It’s a good place to be stuck,” said Brent Bundy, a cyclist from Oregon who has been in Australia two months longer than planned.

With little else to do, Hosp, the reef guide, and crew members have been replanting hundreds of pieces of coral as part of a study on the impact of heat stress on their growth.

Among the parrotfish and green turtles, Hosp said, “you could almost forget what was going on in the world.” But aboard the boat, the harsh reality of the virus’s impact came flooding back.

“I definitely missed the tourists,” Hosp said. “It was very humbling.”

 

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