The study examined more than 4600 people’s attitudes to the reef both before and after major coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.
The tourists, from both Australia and overseas, were much more positive about the perceptions of beauty associated with the reef and their overall satisfaction with their experience in the first survey, conducted in 2013.
By the time of the second survey in 2017 there was a marked change in concern.
JCU’s Dr Jeremy Goldberg, who also worked on the project, said in particular their feelings of protectiveness towards the natural wonder had increased, but their belief that they personally could do something had declined.
“There was an increase in proportion of respondents who viewed climate change as an immediate threat,” Dr Goldberg said.
“And there was an increase in protective sentiment; that everyone involved should work together to mitigate threats to the reef.
“But there was also a decline in people’s perception of what they can do individually to address the problem.”
A 2017 report by Deloitte Access Economics found the reef to be worth in the region of $56 billion, when factoring in its economic, cultural and iconic value.
In an editorial attached to the new research, Ross Westoby and Karen E. McNamara from Griffith University’s Institute for Tourism said the results show people’s sense of despair over the fate of the reef can be overcome.
“Although increased awareness and concern about climate change and perceived value of the GBR are encouraging, [the research] also found that capacity to act and sense of individual responsibility actually diminished over time,” they said.
“This suggests that to capitalise on these feelings to spur action, small and incremental positive actions need to be highlighted, to encourage people that their actions are useful and that they can be part of the solution even if governments and industry stumble and trail behind.”
Dr Heron said governments and industry should be at the forefront of encouraging people to do more to help protect the reef and deal with the effects of climate change.
“There is an opportunity for governments and corporations to recognise the threat of climate change and lead us as a community,” he said.
“There’s the opportunity and the urgent need.”
Stuart Layt covers health, science and technology for the Brisbane Times. He was formerly the Queensland political reporter for AAP.