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Ningaloo tourists in for a whale of a time

Eco-tourism; isn’t it funny how things change - 50 years ago tourists payed to hunt and kill magnificent animals, now they hand over their AMEX cards to pet them, swim with them, or simply see them.

While March and April may signal the end of the summer season for Perth’s tourists businesses, it’s just the beginning for those cashing in on the yearly habits of the world’s biggest sharks, the whale sharks, which congregate along various parts of the Ningaloo Reef, near Exmouth and Coral Bay, 1270 km north of Perth, for several months in autumn.

While this site may have been know to relatively few 20 years ago, and only 11 years ago seemed to be nothing more than a spot where retired Australians parked their camper vans, today it’s a hotbed of activity and income; in 1998 tourists spent $85 million in the Gascoyne region.

Former Exmouth local Geoff Taylor is credited by some for the emerging popularity of the destination - he studied the habits, and photographed the activities of the whale sharks for a decade before published his book, Whale Sharks, in 1994.

His studies allowed locals to pin point the times when the sharks would arrive each season and begin marketing the event.

“The whale shark phenomenon has had a huge impact on tourism in the town, giving Exmouth a “label’ that allowed them to promote the area worldwide,” Mr Taylor said.

“Their advertisements now appear in diving magazines throughout the world.

“The whole nature of Exmouth tourism has also changed.

“Pre-1990 the tourists were mostly elderly winter residents who did not arrive until May-June, and stayed until September-October.

“Now the tourism season starts in March and there is a huge influx in April.”

Kirstin Anderson, part owner of The Exmouth Diving Centre, has lived in the area for more than seven years and watched the economic revolution not only of her own business - which has added an extra location, boats, tours and courses - but of other businesses in the area.

“The eco-tourism market is indeed expanding. There have been several new companies moving up in the last few years for the tourist market,” Ms Anderson said.

“The whale sharks are a huge drawcard for international journalists and also for international travellers, divers and snorkers alike.

“There’s a huge flow on. People travel a long way to get here, and when they get here they need some place to stay, they eat out, they drink at the local bars, they buy lots of souvenirs, they shop for groceries, they go to the newsagencies, they shop in the local boutiques.

“Also the people who come for whale sharks are the people who can be advised to stay for extra days.

“So they do land-based tours, safaris, they go down into the national parks, so they pay national park fees.”

While most of the 13 CALM-licensed tour operators only function for two or three months over the whale shark season, some like the Exmouth Diving Centre, are expanding their horizons and offer-ing tours all year round.

“Often the operators who are not local will stay for an extra six weeks to run offshoots. They might do some fishing or something else.”

The 1998 figures from the WA Tourism Commission confirm the popularity of the Gascoyne region, with almost a quarter of a million people staying an average of eight nights, 61 per cent of them from Perth. And AMEX they did, spending $85 million, in 1998 alone.

What makes the Gascoyne region so special is just that, it is so special. In addition to the annual arrivals of the worlds biggest fish, the whale shark, there’s also the stunning sight of the Ningaloo Reef, the frequent appearance of tiger sharks, dolphin pods, the general the abundance of fish and the fact that it doesn’t really suffer for the traditional ‘wet season’ and has an average winter temperature of 25 degrees.

Unsurprisingly, these unusual features, with worldwide publicity, have not only turned the local economy of a town with just 3500 residents upside down but also sparked the interested of developers.

Coral Coast Marina Development Pty Ltd (CCMD), is one company that has big plans for this small town, or more specifically the gazetted townsite of Mauds Landing, near Coral Bay.

CCMD is planning to build their proposed Coral Coast Resort village on the inland lagoon system.

According to CCMD, the resort will provide facilities for recreational snorkelling, diving and safe swimming within the complex; a range of restaurants and shops and an area designated for festivals and concerts.

Accommodation plans include a resort, caravan park, chalets, back-packer hostel, staff residences and a number of waterfront residential lots.

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