Victoria’s Great Ocean Road clocked up a century on Thursday, but the world famous tourist drive is fighting for survival amid dual threats of climate change and over-popularity.
Famous for its limestone cliffs, surf breaks and rainforests, the 242km route is close to “being loved to death,” locals say.
“It’s becoming a bit of a gridlock,” said an Apollo Bay surfer and fisherman, Peter Fillmore, who has lived in the region for 40 years.
Traffic congestion has ramped up in the past decade, fueled by a boom in Chinese tourists on coach tours and independent driving trips.
The road was driven on by 6.1 million international and domestic tourists who spent US$1.4 billion in the year ending in March.
However, some locals lament that many day trippers come for a quick selfie and then return to the city and do not spend much money in towns along the way.
“What we would like to see is fewer tourists, but spending longer here, exploring the other wonders that the area has to offer,” Aireys Inlet and District Association president Charlotte Allen said.
There have also been safety concerns raised about international drivers after multiple fatal road smashes.
“One of the real pressure point places is at the memorial arch. Parking is limited, and there are no toilet facilities. All the big buses leave Melbourne at the same time, and they all want to stop at the memorial arch to get a photo. It just becomes absolutely crazy with people standing in the middle of the road and people using the bushes for toilets. It’s a nightmare,” Allen said.
Her association has called on authorities to undertake a study to determine whether the region’s peak tourism capacity has been reached and consider measures such as tolls to limit numbers.
Fillmore said the road is no longer fit to cope with today’s traffic.
“When they built the road they probably didn’t put a lot of base material on it, thinking that it was just going to be for Model T Fords and horse and carts,” he said.
Although federal and state governments have spent US$150 million in recent years fixing landslips, Fillmore believes tourists should be helping to maintain the road.
“You’re passing through a national park to get here. Virtually everywhere else in the world where you enter a very popular national park you pay a fee. Every tourist who comes down that road should be paying at least $20,” he said.
He said a ban or limit on the big 50- to 60-seat coach buses should be considered.
“The really big buses weigh a lot and you can see they’re damaging the road,” he added.
Victoria’s southwest coast has always been a treacherous part of the world. More than 200 shipwrecks lie off the coast.
In 1802 the explorer Matthew Flinders said he had “seldom seen a more fearful section of coastline,” and the climate emergency has the potential to make conditions even rougher.
A University of Melbourne ocean engineering expert, Ian Young, said that by 2050 the average sea level rise could be 60cm along Victoria’s southwest coast.
“Our work shows by 2100 you can expect extreme storm waves in the Southern Ocean to increase [in height] by between 10 and 15 percent,” he said.
Asked if this could mean the loss of more of the 12 Apostles, Young said: “It’s quite possible there could be some more natural erosion of those sorts of coastal features, yes.”