2009's hottest destination (and that's when the trouble started)

Lonely Planet's decision to bestow its ultimate accolade on Tasmania's Bay of Fires has angered Aborigines and tourism chiefs who fear a backpacker invasion
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The Bay of Fires, a beautiful, isolated spot on Tasmania's north-east coast, was until recently a well-kept secret. Then Lonely Planet declared it the world's "hottest" destination for 2009. Now an almighty row is shattering its tranquillity.

Shortly after Lonely Planet bestowed its accolade, the state premier, David Bartlett, announced plans to turn the Bay of Fires – a 20-mile strip of picturesque coves and deserted white beaches – into a national park. This came as a surprise, for there had been no consultation. And Mr Bartlett appeared to have forgotten a long-standing promise to return the area to Aboriginal ownership. Aboriginal activists are now threatening to mount a blockade and reclaim it by force.

While environmentalists have welcomed the designation of a national park, they disagree about the merits of the indigenous land claim. Green politicians and the island's leading conservation organisations back it but others accuse Tasmanian Aborigines of being poor land managers and say that conservation must take precedence over social justice.

Then there is a third interest group: tourism operators and other businesses, itching to exploit the area's newly-acquired international profile. They want neither a national park nor Aboriginal control, but seek planning curbs to be relaxed to allow more development, and they are cynical about everyone else's motives.

"We've been trying to raise recognition of the Bay of Fires for years and we were ignored," said Peter Paulsen, who is president of the local tourism association. "It wasn't until Lonely Planet decided it was important that everyone got excited."

The travel publisher cannot have dreamt what it was starting when it praised the Bay of Fires' "white beaches of hourglass-fine sand, Bombay sapphire sea ... azure sky". Lonely Planet enthused: "This is the secret edge of Tasmania, laid out like a pirate's treasure map of perfect beach after sheltered cove, all fringed with forest ... The crowds are bound to flock. Now is the time to visit."

Not so fast, says Michael Mansell, an Aboriginal leader, pointing out that in 1999 one of Mr Bartlett's predecessors pledged to return Crown land in the Bay to its traditional owners. Mr Mansell, who has a firebrand reputation, added that activists were prepared to occupy the site. "We've used that tactic elsewhere in the past, and while it's very confrontational, we would have no qualms whatsoever about taking that approach if necessary."

The Bay of Fires was the last refuge of Tasmanian Aborigines, who were rounded up and killed or shipped to offshore islands by colonial forces in the early 19th century. It was named by an English naval captain, Tobias Furneaux, who accompanied James Cook on his second voyage of exploration. As they sailed by, Furneaux saw fires burning along the beaches – lit by the locals to attract kangaroos into their camps.

Indigenous groups say that, with their traditional links to the land, they are best equipped to look after the region and its natural resources. The coastal stretch is dotted with Aboriginal burial grounds and middens. Mr Mansell said: "It's such a sensitive area that tourism has got to be managed in a very strict way, and the only way to do that is to have Aboriginal people controlling it."

But environmentalists such as Todd Dudley dispute the competence of modern Tasmanian Aborigines, most of whom live in the cities and are not living a traditional lifestyle. The island's last full-blooded Aborigine, Truganini, died in 1876.

Mr Dudley, who heads the North East Regional Network, alleged: "Ab-origines are supposed to be good land managers, but it's a nonsense. It's not a genetic thing, you're not born with it. There are thousands of people in Australia who are very passionate about the environment and spend all their time and effort looking after it.

"If you want credibility in terms of claiming some affinity with the land, or knowledge of land management, you need to have a track record in the last 20 years and they [Tasmanian Aborigines] don't. In all the time I've lived here, they've never shown much interest in getting involved in conservation issues. They seem to be more interested in getting the land back for its tourism potential."

Mr Paulsen echoes the criticism, claiming that a small portion of the Bay of Fires already handed back to Aboriginal ownership has been badly neglected. "If you go up and have a look at the area which is under the management of the Aboriginal community, you'd be absolutely horrified," he said.

But he is equally opposed to the national park scheme, calling it a distraction from the area's real needs, such as upgraded roads and commercial precincts to assist development. He also says it would be virtually impossible to set the boundaries of a national park in the Bay of Fires, which contains a great deal of private land.

"I've lived in the area for nearly 30 years and I've dived the whole coastline," he said. "I have an intimate knowledge of it, rock by rock, and I can't make sense of where you would draw the line. This suggestion [of a national park] was a throwaway line by the premier. It was thrown into the air like confetti, because it sounded good."

Mr Paulsen also challenged Aboriginal leaders to delineate the land which they claimed was theirs. "I really don't care who owns it," he said. "It's not about ownership, it's about management."

But Mr Mansell remains defiant. "Our people have been there since time began," he said. "It's where Tasmanian Aborigines are all descended from, and our people have a very strong link to the area. If we are being denied ownership, we have to do something about it. We are holding the government to its promise."

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