Walk Softly

The Business of Ecotourism

A growing sector of the global tourism industry, ecotourism is enjoying expansion at the rate of around 10 to 15 per cent annually. It is a worldwide phenomenon, and one which Australia, with its many pristine and protected areas – and keen understanding of the tourism and hospitality sectors – is particularly well suited to take advantage of.

With the aim of offering a low-impact, small-scale alternative to conventional tourism, ecotourism is generally considered to be environmentally sustainable travel to fragile, pristine, or protected natural areas. Ecotourists endeavour to “tread lightly”, leaving a negligible human footprint on the natural environment and limiting waste, emissions, and ecological disruption. An effective ecotourism tour, accommodation, or adventure will educate the traveller, provide funds for conservation, directly benefit the economic development and political empowerment of local communities, and foster respect for different cultures and for human and animal rights.

While many nations around the globe are hungry for a piece of the ecotourism pie, Australia does it particularly well. In the best case scenario, local, well-managed ecotourism creates viable economic opportunities at the community level, and there is a strong multiplier effect on the local economy as local products, materials and labour are employed. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Park, in particular, reported over half of a billion dollars of indirect income in the area and added thousands of indirect jobs between 2004 and 2005.

Despite the high level of takeup locally and globally, the idea of ecotourism remains subject to criticism and to ongoing evaluation. Indeed, environmentalists, special interest groups, members of the private sector, and governments often define ecotourism differently, and even the language has grown increasingly complex, with, as authors Tuohino and Hynonen state, “many terms [being] used under the rubric of ecotourism,” including nature tourism, low impact tourism, green tourism, bio-tourism, ecologically responsible tourism, and others. As in many sectors, there is also the dangerous trend toward “greenwashing”, commercialising tourism schemes which are only nominally nature-based or environmentally responsible. As well, some tourism activities which on their face protect the natural environment may in fact displace people, and the field has, in some areas, become a source of conflict over control and ownership of land, resources, and resultant revenues.

The controversy surrounding Uluru is one example of how nature-based tourism can conflict with a given area’s native peoples (see Business in Focus, July 2014). Estimated to be around 550 million years old, Uluru was named by the Anangu people who have been its traditional custodians for tens of thousands of years. In 1950, the government took possession of Uluru and the nearby Kata Tjuta, turning the two sites and surrounding area comprising over 311,000 acres into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Both sites are undeniably striking and have become national landmarks, yet are sometimes used in very different ways by tourists and the area’s Indigenous people. The beauty and majesty of Uluru and Kata Tjuta create a rich visitor experience but the sites, in particular Uluru, have been the subject of much controversy and deliberation. In 1983, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised to hand back the land title of Uluru to the Anangu people. He agreed with the community’s 10-point plan that included granting the government a 50-year lease of the land and prohibiting people from climbing Uluru. The official ceremony of handing back the land title took place in October 1985, but not before the lease was changed to 99 years and climbing was determined to still be permitted. Today, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Area, and climbing Uluru, though still permitted, remains by far the most sensitive and controversial issue surrounding the Park’s management. Uluru is considered sacred to the Anangu people, and climbing is strongly discouraged, yet it remains a strong draw for many tourists.

To address issues such as these and celebrate those operators who are living up to the ideals of true ecotourism, Ecotourism Australia (EA) was established “to promote ecotourism throughout Australia and its immediate region by creating partnerships, developing and encouraging quality ecotourism experiences and providing the industry with a clear voice.” Australia’s peak national body for the industry, EA developed the Eco Certification Program to address the need to identify the country’s genuine ecotourism operators and provide an internationally recognised brand standing for true sustainability in the field. Tourism operators in Australia who have their product accredited under the program – whether a tour, a skippered cruise or boat charter, an attraction, or an accommodation, can legitimately claim to provide an authentic ecotourism product or service.

EA boasts a diverse membership base that includes key industry sectors such as accommodation, tour and attraction operators, tourism planners, protected area managers, academics and students, consultants, local and regional tourism associations, and travellers. The association aims to support its members through developing standards of best practice, streamlining policies and processes, improving financial viability for operators who adopt sustainable practices, contributing to conservation projects, and marketing the principles of sustainability across all sectors of the tourism industry. The association also provides an online searchable database of members, seminars, and workshops, and hosts a lively and informative annual national conference. Its comprehensive web-based tools can point visitors in the right direction when planning their ecotourism experience.

As EA identifies, a number of Australian companies do take part in true ecotourism, and do it very well. At Gippsland High Country Tours, the order of the day is “slow travel,” with peace, quiet, and plenty of moments to breathe. The company’s variety of ecotours all boast Advanced Eco-certification and offer “an opportunity to learn about the environment and have a commitment to reducing impacts, using resources wisely, reducing the carbon footprint of travel and contributing to conservation,” according to company’s website, http://www.gippslandhighcountrytours.com.au/.

Mt Barney Lodge Country Retreat, meanwhile, offers the chance to escape the office and get back to nature just 90 minutes from Brisbane or the Gold Coast. Situated within Australia’s Green Cauldron – an ancient volcanic hotspot and now a living Gondwanan rainforest – this site maintains strong green credentials.

Southern Exposure offers Adventure Education and Nature Based Tourism programs along the Great Ocean Road and the Surf Coast. The company is proud to be one of the few Surf Schools to be granted licenses to operate in the area, and recognises its license to operate as a privilege. Says the company, “We respect cultural heritage and have sought advice from the Wathaurong Clan, the original owners of this land.”

In a similar vein, Tony’s Tropical Tours is 100 per cent locally owned and family operated, and remains “committed to the environment and dedicated to providing our guests with an unrushed, private, unique rainforest experience and the best in personal service. The Daintree Rainforest is the oldest continuously living rainforest in the world, dating over 135 million years and home to one of the highest populations of primitive flowering plants in the world with the greatest concentration of plant species that are rare, or threatened with extinction. “The Daintree Rainforest,” says the company, “was world heritage listed in 1988 and is positioned adjacent to The Great Barrier Reef, making it the only place in the world where two world heritage areas meet.”

While millions of travellers worldwide are enjoying what nature has to offer, Australia’s leaders in the field are seeing to it that they are doing it in the best way possible. When viable business opportunities and environmental sustainability meet, a win-win situation is often the result, and such is the case with the best of ecotourism. Whatever form it takes, it is clear that ecotourism is here to stay – and hopefully, to live up to its promises.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

January 18, 2019, 3:27 AM AEDT