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Government outlines steps to save popular recreation area from overuse

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A cap on visitor numbers during peak times and measures to curb “ghost bookings” are being considered for a popular beach destination, but the use of shuttle buses and an increase in fees have been ruled out.

They are some of the key points to come out of the Cooloola Recreation Area Sustainable Visitor Capacity Management Study, which was done in 2022 but released last week, along with the government’s plan to action its findings.

The recreation area covers popular spots such as Double Island Point, Teewah Beach, Freshwater camping area, Rainbow Beach and lagoon area, and the Upper Noosa River.

The long-awaited 2022 study has informed the development of a new draft Cooloola Recreation Area Management Plan, which members of the public are now able to have their say on.

Environment Minister Leanne Linard said the area was one of the most popular destinations managed by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

“In 2023, people spent more than 182,000 camper nights in the Cooloola Recreation Area and almost 100,000 vehicle access permits were purchased,” Ms Linard said.

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“With increasing patronage, fuelled in part by south-east Queensland’s growing population, there’s a risk the area’s unique natural environment will be adversely impacted if we don’t manage the area correctly.

“It is important that well informed planning is at the forefront of QPWS’s future management of the park and recreation area.

“The sustainable visitor capacity study that we commissioned has observed annual and seasonal visitation cycles, assessed current site demands and impacts and engaged with the Traditional Owners, residents of neighbouring communities, users of the areas and key stakeholders.”

Boats and four-wheel-drives on the beach at Double Island Point. Picture: Shutterstock

The key recommendations and responses include giving consideration to regulating vehicle numbers for the 20 busiest days each year.

“Options to maintain sustainable visitor numbers at peak periods are currently being considered and/or implemented as recommended and will be further informed by the Management Plan public consultation process,” the report states.

It also outlines that the government may investigate new permit types “to help with planning and better manage peak seasonal visitation demands”.

Individual site zoning and vehicle exclusion zones and time limits at key sites are also being considered.

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A new camping and vehicle access booking system will also be developed.

“(This) will enhance capacity to monitor, regulate and report on total visitor numbers, to help inform decision making about overall and individual site capacities,” the report states.

The new system will also include controls intended to prevent the practice of ghost bookings, where travellers book campsites but fail to turn up.

The report says fees and charges to visit the Cooloola Recreation Area will not increase due to cost-of-living pressures.

It also rules out using shuttle buses as public transport options into the recreation area.

“Although, consideration may be given to a permit application from a suitably qualified commercial operator,” it says.

The Leisha Track, which connects the Teewah Beach and Rainbow Beach sections of Cooloola Recreation Area.

To enhance conservation, the recommendations include a permanent ban on open campfires, increased checks on portaloo compliance and building new public toilets.

The report says $1 million has been committed to capital works upgrades, and 5.2 full-time equivalent staff positions have been allocated to improve operational and support capability.

The study also considered limits on night-time driving during seasonal fauna nesting cycles, but instead recommended extra education to discourage non-essential driving during those times.

Promoting other local destinations, such as by opening other beaches to four-wheel-drives, to spread visitor numbers is also endorsed.

The study also advocates for improved telecommunications, which it says are the primary responsibility of the federal government.

State Member for Noosa Sandy Bolton welcomed the release of the study and draft Cooloola Recreation Area Management Plan, which is open for feedback until 5pm on June 4.

“We have seen improvements over recent years in response to ongoing advocacy, such as the requirement for portaloos in the camping zone, numberplate recognition cameras and increased police/ranger compliance activities,” Ms Bolton said.

“However, more is needed as we have raised in previous submissions, such as how to better manage visitor numbers in a sustainable way.

“Residents have contacted my office over the years with various concerns including dangerous behaviours, or seeking improvements to the management of the area, and now is the time for everyone to reiterate their views direct and add to my ongoing advocacy as well that of the Teewah Cooloola Working Group.

“Getting the balance right is essential to ensure the uniqueness of this area is retained for both residents and visitors alike now and into the future. This is not the time to remain silent, so please jump online and have your say.”

Sustainable Visitor Capacity Management Studies were also commissioned by the state government for the Bribie Island and K’gari (Fraser Island) recreation areas. The three combined study areas attract up to 23,714 vehicles and 592,809 camper nights a year.

The studies were undertaken by consultants Earthcheck Pty Ltd.

The study and the government’s summary and response are available here. The public consultation period is open until June 4.

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