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Overtourism puts ecotourism on the map

Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef is a beach-side safari camp nestled in the dunes of the Cape Range National Park, Western Australia.

The unthinking tourist might be a thing of the past if people such as Rod Hillman continue to drive change.

Ecotourism advocates have noticed an uptick in the niche industry.

Already gaining attention is Lord Howe Island with its bed limit for tourists and management plan, winning a Banksia award for its troubles. Douglas Shire Council north of Cairns is trialling a certification scheme, and there is the Palau Pledge, which asks visitors to promise to leave wildlife and shells untouched.

But according to chief executive officer of Ecotourism Australia Rod Hillman sustainable tourism is not just occurring in the beautiful and remote landscapes scattered across the country where you’d expect it, but it’s increasingly permeating cities and the tourism outfits operating there. 

Driving this emphasis on sustainable tourism, he says, are the tourists themselves.

“Visitors just expect it. They don’t book it because it’s green. But if they get there and it isn’t, they will smash it.

“Travellers today are very savvy. They’ve heard about climate change and the negative impacts tourism can have on a destination. If you’re a business and you’re not conscious of how you’re operating in respect to the environment and the local community, you’re losing out.”

Ecotourism Australia’s core stream of work is its ECO Certification program, which basically assesses tourism operators’ business, environmental and sociocultural performance against the “definition of ecotourism”.

This is where Hillman is seeing progress towards more sustainable practices across multiple sectors, including accommodation providers.

He said that of the 500 or so tourism providers that are certified by the not-for-profit organisation, around 100 are accommodation providers (the rest are mainly tours for “hiking and sailing and such”). Hillman’s group offers guidelines to help operators construct and operate green buildings.

There’s some evidence that the hotel and accommodation market more broadly is looking more seriously at energy efficiency and green buildings. A 2018 report on innovation in the hotel industry from Tourism Accommodation Australia claims that “environmental sustainability is at the heart of most hotel operations today” and that “this now goes beyond reusing towels and installing automatic lights to conserve energy and reduce waste”. 

For example, a recently built Fragrance-owned ibis hotel in Hobart claims to be Australia’s first and only 5 star Green Star certified hotel. In another first for the hospitality sector, the Wyndham LUX Perth Hotel is aiming to be the first hotel worldwide to obtain an EPD – an independently verified and registered document that communicates transparent and comparable data about the life-cycle environmental impact of products.

In Victoria, Lorne is now home to an off-grid outdoor adventure park called Live Wire Park that can survive off its solar and battery system for three days from a single charge. Water on site is collected and treated to irrigate the park, which features a 525-metre-long zip line, and guests are asked not to bring plastic or packaging if they bring their own food and drinks.

Live Wire Park outdoor adventure park in Lorne, Victoria.

Going green makes financial sense in tourism

Rod Hillman says that it’s “extremely rare” for his organisation’s members to go broke because of the direct link between environmental/social sustainability and financial sustainability.

“Tourism is a tough game. Most go broke in tourism in the first five years. It is far more likely for your business to be sustainable if you run it according to ecotourism principles,” he says.

He says this is because these businesses have long-term visions and embed themselves into the community and the region.

“You need to think about what benefit the community and the environment is getting here.”

A happy community that welcomes tourists is also a good sign that the location is not suffering from over-tourism, he added.

Ecotourism Australia certified Binna Burra mountain lodge in Queensland.

Lord Howe Island is a great example of community-led tourism

Hillman pointed to Lord Howe Island as an example of community led-tourism. The 350 residents of the world heritage-listed island decided that they didn’t want noticeably more tourists on the island than locals at any one time, so applied a bed limit of 400. The bed cap was one of several sustainability initiatives that won the island the top honour at this year’s Banksia Awards.

Not only does this mean that tourists and locals alike “aren’t running into heaps of people and can take their shoes off and walk across the beach”, it also makes the accommodation businesses on the island more financially sustainable.

He said bookings on the island are running over 100 per cent and yields are fantastic. Not only are operators getting good prices for their rooms, but the bed licences themselves can be a source of income when they are bought and sold. The licences can often be worth more than the hotel itself, he says.

And most of this income stays in the community because all accommodation that comes up for sale on the island must be offered to all locals before an outsider can buy it.

With this extra cash coming in, residents of the island are able to “invest it back into the product” – the island itself. This includes nurturing endangered native species and pest eradication. “They’ve done goats, rats are next.”

Lord Howe Island

Hillman admits that the price-point of Lord Howe Island “is certainly out of reach for a lot of people” and might be a “once in a lifetime” type of place.

“But you’re always going to have equity of access issues… and in NSW you are fortunate enough to have other opportunities to access wilderness up and down the coast.”

As demand builds new markets will be unearthed

In the future, ecotourism may become more accessible for everyone. Hillman is optimistic that as more people recognise that ecotourism consistently delivers a higher quality experience, demand for these services will increase and new markets will be unearthed.

And the tide could be turning. Hillman believes over-tourism in some popular holiday destinations is prompting communities and governments to think more holistically about the impact tourism is having on natural environments and the social fabric of these places.

The Palau Pledge and tourists as guests, with rules

In places such as Copenhagen in Denmark and New Zealand, and Australia in pockets, Hillman says there’s a shift away from “numbers game” tourism. He says there’s also a push to changing tourist behaviour by welcoming people as “guests” rather than tourists.

“When guests come [into our homes] we have rules, shoes off and don’t smoke, and everything else is cool.

“So now we have these kinds of rules for entering countries or regions.”

The Palau Pledge, for example, was introduced in July this year and is a world-first eco-tourism conservation pledge that is stamped into the passports of people visiting the Micronesian nation of Palau. The pledge commits visitors to support local businesses and leaving shells and wildlife untouched during their stay.

But how can we trust tourism operators are green?

Ecotourism Australia is working hard through a range or certification programs to guarantee that providers are as green as they say they are. This includes a new program for certifying regions.

“When you are a tourist or a guest and you choose where you want to go, you might read a tourism brochure, but because there is so little trust between people and government agencies, people don’t believe it.”

Although Trip Advisor and other peer review sites go some way to helping tourists make an assessment about a place, Hillman says his organisation has been working with regions so that they can prove they are adhering to sustainable tourism principles.

He says regions must meet a range of criteria that align with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council standards.

“It’s a way of building trust, and that way the destinations themselves go through each of the policies and procedures involved in adopting sustainable practices.”

He says that the Douglas Shire Council north of Cairns is the first to pilot the Ecotourism Destination Certification and that Lord Howe Island is also interested.

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