Great Barrier Reef Is Becoming a 'Theme Park' With Underwater Hotels and Attractions As Its Beauty Fades, Tour Operator Warns

A tour operator has warned that Australia's Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is becoming a "theme park" as the natural wonder is increasingly opened up to development in an attempt to lure tourists.

In recent times, several attractions have been built in the GBR, including underwater statues—some of which measure up to 20 feet high—ABC News reported. Meanwhile, a hotel constructed on a pontoon near an island in the southern portion of the reef, which features underwater suites, is set to open in November.

"In the past, it was simply the beauty of the reef, the diverse corals and amount of fish life, and things like sharks and manta rays and whales," Tony Fontes, a dive operator in the Whitsunday Islands—which lie off Australia's northeast coast—told ABC.

"The tourism industry, desperate to maintain tourist numbers, is looking beyond the natural beauty of the reef because it's not quite what it was," he said. "It's just the past couple of years we're seeing the idea of a theme park coming in... statues and five-star hotels," he said.

Fontes said that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA)—the government agency responsible for the care and protection of much of the reef—has drifted away from its original focus, allowing more underwater attractions.

"The old GBRMPA was [about] a marine park, and the new GBRMPA unfortunately is becoming a theme park," he said. "[In the past] there was no debate, they just said 'no, that's not a natural part of the reef—we're not going to turn it into Luna Park,'" Fontes said.

John Day, a former director of the GRBMPA, said that the change in direction at the organization could be attributed to a perceived need to boost tourism after two severe mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, as well as several cyclones, caused significant damage to the reef.

"In the past, the Great Barrier Reef relied very heavily on its own natural attributes to draw visitors, but unfortunately with the recent bleaching events and cyclones, some of these areas aren't looking quite as spectacular as they used to," Day told ABC.

"So if we can keep tourists coming with some underwater art, as long as it's done under appropriate conditions and in a sustainable way it can enhance the tourism experience, while hopefully these areas recover and come back to what they were," he said.

In a statement provided to ABC News, the GRBMPA said that they strived to protect and conserve the reef, while allowing "ecologically sustainable use."

"The Great Barrier Reef is a multiple-use marine park and there have always been different tourism activities taking place, ranging from very low-impact eco-activities to pontoons, underwater observatories, and live-aboard vessels," a spokesperson said.

Coral reefs around the world are facing significant threats because of the impact of human activities. These threats include pollution, resource over-exploitation and unsustainable fishery practices, as well as trends linked to climate change, including ocean warming, reduced levels of oxygen in seawater and ocean acidification.

Researchers say that the two recent mass bleaching events were caused by significant spikes in water temperatures. As the world warms, so does the average temperatures of the planet's oceans, lakes and rivers, making these kinds of events more likely.

Coral bleaching events can be severely damaging: the two that occurred in 2016 and 2017 were the worst in recorded history, leading to a catastrophic die-off in many regions of the 3,800 individual reefs that comprise the world's largest reef system.

Bleaching happens when corals are placed under stressful conditions such as high temperatures. In response, they expel tiny plant-like organisms called zooxanthellae that live inside their tissue. This causes them to turn white.

Bleaching is not immediately fatal to the corals, because they can reabsorb the zooxanthellae. But if the stressful conditions persist for too long, they die.

While corals have a remarkable ability to recover from damaging events, research is showing that this capacity is being eroded in the face of climate change and its related impacts.

For example, a study published in the journal Nature found that the replenishment of new coral in the GBR fell by a staggering 89 percent following the 2016 and 2017 events.

Coral reefs are incredibly important to the ocean's ecosystem. While they cover less than 1 percent of the Earth's surface, they are home to around 25 percent of known marine life and host the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem globally. Furthermore, coral reefs provide a significant benefit to the world economy, as well as several essential "natural" services.

"It has been estimated that 500 million people directly rely on coral reefs for food, resources and livelihoods, and they have an estimated economic impact of $375 billion a year," Emma Camp, from the University of Technology Sydney in Australia, told Newsweek.

"Important ecosystem services of coral reefs include, but are not limited to: acting as natural barriers providing coastal protection, supporting fisheries, habitat for many marine species, important source of pharmaceutical compounds, cultural significance and value, part of nutrient cycling in the marine environment, and important for tourism," she said.

The GBR is the largest living structure on Earth, extending for more than 1,400 miles, while providing a home for thousands of different animal species.

Great Barrier Reef
Aerial view of coral banks, reef systems and the pacific ocean on November 20, 2015 in Great Barrier Reef, Australia. EyesWideOpen/Getty Images