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Queensland’s ongoing COVID camping boom poses challenges for national parks

The popularity of Queensland’s national parks, due to COVID, has more than doubled visitor numbers in some southeastern locations, posing new challenges for managers and users.

Statewide camping nights in national parks plummeted in 2019-20, when 470 campgrounds closed and much of Queensland was on lockdown.

But in the second half of 2020, the parks reopened and people were ready to go outside again – although not all national park camps were 100% back to pre-pandemic levels.

Coastal parks such as Bribie Island, Cooloola and Inskip Point saw a 30% increase in camping nights booked in 2020-21, at the height of the pandemic, compared to 2018-2019 numbers.

Visitors can camp at Girraween National Park on the Queensland-NSW border.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Further south, parks such as Girraween, Bunya Mountains and Sundown on the NSW border have more than doubled both camping nights and remote camping permits, according to figures collected by the Department of Environment and Wildlife. Science.

Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon said visitor numbers had fallen slightly this year but were still above pre-pandemic levels.

“We have over 500 parks, so we have so many experiences for people to have,” she said.

“But of course we have to make sure we manage the numbers so that the experience is sustainable.”

Popularity of four-wheelers

Vehicle permits for Bribie Island increased by nearly 30% in 2020-21, Cooloola Recreation Reserve by 34% and K’gari by 8% from 2018-2019.

Four Wheel Drive Association Queensland chairman Shane Rose said the fact that some sites are still closed puts more pressure on popular family beaches such as Cooloola.

A queue of 4x4s on a beach
Queues of campers are a regular weekend scene at Inskip Point en route to K’Gari.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Lucy Stone)

Mr Rose said public toilets and other facilities at coastal venues were not keeping up with demand.

“If you go to Cooloola, there’s still only one lot of public restrooms, that’s it, there’s nothing else.

“[QPWS] now say take your own port-a-potty…but realistically you would surely think that with the amount of money raised they could actually provide better facilities which in turn would mean there would be less waste, less environmental damage and less pollution.”

Another problem, he said, was that people were booking campsites months in advance and not showing up, leaving high-demand spaces empty.

With the increase in vehicle surveillance cameras, Mr Rose said it should be possible for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) to monitor high demand camping areas and open reserved but unused camps .

A 4x4 on a beach
K’Gari/Fraser Island’s beaches help make the area a hotspot for 4x4s and camping.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Lucy Stone)

Distance Popularity

Inland, national parks southwest of Brisbane have seen some of the biggest increases in visitor numbers.

In the Southwest region, which covers parks such as Girraween, Sundown and Bunya Mountains, 2018-2019 camping nights totaled 43,869.

In 2020-21, that number jumped 120% to 97,008.

Girraween Ranger Manager Greg Keith said the visitor boom was immediately noticeable.

“A weekend like Easter or another long weekend or during school holidays…we could sign up for two members of staff and we’d know we’re probably going to have to look at overflow parking, we’ll have to check the toilets twice a day and check the barbecues,” he said.

“Once people were able to move in the second half of 2020-21, every weekend was like an Easter weekend.

“It was something I could never have predicted.”

In just seven months of 2020-21, Girraween alone welcomed around 105,800 visitors, more than the whole of 2017-2018.

A rocky outcrop in a national park in Queensland
The pyramid is a destination on one of the walks in Girraween National Park.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Many visitors were inexperienced hikers or completely new to national parks, requiring rangers to educate on proper behavior in the park, such as leaving the dog at home.

A Girraween campsite was permanently closed recently due to ecological impacts and replaced with another campsite and more parking spaces.

Internet Attractions

Mr Keith said many more people were wandering off, inspired by photos or videos of remote hikes posted online.

Man with beard, wearing Akubra and brown sweater
Mr Keith says he has “definitely” noticed an increase in “compaction on the trails and fires where they shouldn’t be”.(Provided: Greg Keith)

“A lot of these people get their information from the internet…it’s not really formal trail rides that we maintain, it’s distance rides,” he said.

“I’ve had people come up to me asking about it and expecting it to be a walk and it’s signed and they don’t have a card.

“There’s a bit of a concern for their safety, but there’s also this impact happening in the more remote parts of the park where we’re certainly seeing a noticeable increase in compaction on the trails, fires where they don’t shouldn’t be.

“I would say we haven’t been able to figure out how we’re going to get out of this. It’s probably a management challenge going forward.”

“Love a Park to Death”

Simone Maynard, conservation manager for the National Parks Association of Queensland, said the boom in nature tourism was not unique to Queensland.

“The number of visitors to national parks is actually a global phenomenon; it’s happening in the UK, across America, in states in Australia,” she said.

“It’s happening all over the world now as people come out of lockdown and seek improvements to their mental and physical well-being.”

Dr. Maynard said his 90-year-old environmental organization welcomed the state’s record spending on national parks, but said increasing the number of rangers was a priority.

Queensland has around $30 million in national park projects budgeted this year, including new camp facilities and toilet upgrades.

Ms Scanlon said her department wants people to visit new parks to avoid “loving a park to death”.

“Hopefully we continue to see high numbers, but of course we also want to make sure that the end goal of protecting these parks is the priority, so we have to balance that,” she said.

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