The tourism operators who depend on the natural wonder, already contending with climate change, have been walloped by the pandemic. The absence of visitors is bad for them — and the reef.
Diving beneath the ocean, Russell Hosp swam toward the limestone bed of the Great Barrier Reef, where he reattached bits of blue staghorn coral. With tourists gone, he was filling the void with this small act of conservation, which took his mind off the uncertain future on land.
“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 realised just how much the coronavirus “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 colours. 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 travellers, already deterred by last summer’s devastating bush fires and now locked out by Australia’s international and domestic travel bans, have all but vanished, and a US$4.6 billion ($7 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.
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