Corals of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) have declined over the past 30 years. While reef state depends on the balance between disturbance and recovery, most studies have focused on the effects of disturbance on reef decline. We show that coral recovery rates across the GBR declined by an average of 84% between 1992 and 2010. Recovery was variable: Some key coral types had close to zero recovery by the end of that period, whereas some reefs exhibited high recovery. Our results indicate that coral recovery is sensitive to chronic but manageable pressures, and is suppressed for several years following acute disturbances. Loss of recovery capacity was partly explained by the cumulative effects of chronic pressures including water quality, warming, and sublethal effects of acute disturbances (cyclones, outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, and coral bleaching). Modeled projections indicate that recovery rates can respond rapidly to reductions in acute and chronic stressors, a result that is consistent with fast recovery observed on some reefs in the central and southern GBR since the end of the study period. A combination of local management actions to reduce chronic disturbances and global action to limit the effect of climate change is urgently required to sustain GBR coral cover and diversity.