Commercial tourism

Around two million tourists visit the Great Barrier Reef each year, making commercial marine tourism a major use of the Reef.

There are a wide range of nature-based visitor experiences, ranging from cruise ships and live-aboard vessels to day trips on high speed catamarans and kayaking tours.

Tourism activity in the Reef is consistently focused in a small portion of the Region, with about 80 per cent of all tourism activity occurring in about seven per cent of the Region.

Tourism is a large direct contributor to economic activity when compared to other reef-based industries, however many global factors influence tourism visitation to the Great Barrier Reef Region.

In addition, the tourism industry collects about $7 million each year from tourists through the Environmental Management Charge that directly contributes to managing the Reef.


All tourism operations are closely managed, focusing on the areas of highest use and sensitivity.

Under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003, commercial marine tourism may be conducted in almost all zones and localities of the Marine Park so long as a permit has been obtained.

Statutory Plans of Management for the Cairns Area, Hinchinbrook and the Whitsundays set out more detailed tourism management arrangements.

This includes capping some permit types and defining maximum group and vessel sizes in individual locations. Site management arrangements and specific policies also apply to tourism operations.

In addition to mandatory arrangements, tourism operators that demonstrate best practice standards can become independently certified with the Eco Certification Program, managed by Ecotourism Australia.


Detailed assessments have found that the operation of permanently moored tourism pontoons and activities such as fish feeding have minimal impact on the Reef.

Anchoring of tourism vessels has the potential to damage corals and seagrass habitats. The likelihood of anchor damage from tourism activities has been reduced by:

  • The placement of moorings in high use areas
  • Designated anchoring and no anchoring areas
  • Reef Protection Markers
  • The introduction of best practice guidelines.

Diving and snorkeling can cause localised damage to coral, but these activities are closely supervised.

Sewage discharge is only allowed in open waters.

Total sewage discharge into the Marine Park accounts for only three per cent of the entire nutrient load and tourism vessels contribute only a small portion of this total.