'Pave paradise and you lose': Call for a toll road at remote, fragile tourist spot

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A toll road has been proposed for one of Australia’s most remote and spectacular tourist destinations, with advocates warning of a “paradise lost” unless the area is protected.

Key points:

  • Tourists are predicted to increase by over 40 per cent after the Cape Leveque Road is fully sealed
  • $65 million in WA and Commonwealth government funds will be spent sealing the road
  • Environs Kimberley is calling for a full social impact assessment of the upgrade

Until now, the Dampier Peninsula, north of Broome in Western Australia, has been protected by its remoteness with the area’s notoriously rough Cape Leveque Road limiting the number of visitors.

But tourist numbers are expected to soar by more than 40 per cent after the road is fully sealed in 2021.

The peninsula has one of the highest concentrations of Aboriginal-owned tourism businesses in Australia and includes the award-winning wilderness resort, Kooljaman at Cape Leveque.

The upgrade of the road has led to calls by Broome-based environmental group Environs Kimberley for a full social impact assessment of the road upgrade.

Environs Kimberley director Martin Pritchard said the road could become the “road to Paradise Lost” unless more was done to protect “this jewel of Aboriginal culture and nature-based tourism on Broome’s doorstep”.

“What we’re concerned about is that there will be thousands of new visitors up the peninsula,” he said.

“And that comes at a cost to the environment and also puts great stress on communities up there and they need support for that.

“One idea is to charge a toll for non-local visitors. This would fund environmental management and more rangers.”

Management fee ‘nothing new’

The idea of a toll road — or some kind of management fee — is likely to be considered by a working group of stakeholders on the Dampier Peninsula.

The WA Government recently allocated $1 million to the group which includes Daniel Oades, the coordinator of the Bardi Jawi Indigenous Protected Area (IPA).

“I suppose people are going to be resistant to change,” Mr Oades said.

“But, you know, the people that come and experience and enjoy and put extra pressure on the places that they visit also should contribute to the management of those places.

“It’s nothing new in the scheme of things in national parks or highly visited places.”

Sites already at risk

Mr Oades has been overseeing a 15-strong team of Aboriginal rangers who carry out crucial work controlling fire, weeds and feral animals across a 95,000-hectare area of the peninsula.

He predicted extra resources would be needed to handle the increase in tourist traffic and the ongoing threat to cultural sites.

“There’s definitely damage already occurring to places,” Mr Oades said.

“There’s going to be encroachment and further impacts with more 4WD traffic at some of these more sensitive locations.”

Sixty-five million dollars of state and Commonwealth funds are being spent on sealing the remaining 90km of the road.

Minister for Regional Development Alannah MacTiernan said she was focused on ensuring that the sealing of the road brought benefits to Aboriginal communities on the peninsula.

“We want to make sure that … we’ve got the increased facilities for day and overnight visitors, that we’ve got the right signage and visitor information to advise people of the protocols of visiting the peninsula,” she said.

“We need to … ensure that visitors are going to places where they can enjoy their recreational pursuits without cutting across things that are culturally sensitive.”

Community divided

Both the upgrade of the road, and the prospect of a fee to access it, have brought mixed reactions on social media.

“Pave paradise and you lose,” said one contributor to the ABC Kimberley’s Facebook page.

“All for it,” said another.

“Sealed road will mean more boats. The place will be fished out in no time.”

Others have labelled the toll road idea as a “money grab”.

“I pay my toll every fortnight to the Australian Tax Office,” one wrote.

Mr Pritchard has called for the issue to be opened up for public discussion.

“It could potentially have an extremely negative impact on the peninsula,” he said.

“The Government really should be calling for community input into this.

“We want to make sure that the peninsula doesn’t get ruined by this new road.”