Huon Bush Retreats, TAS (Photo: Matthew Newton)

Ecotourism: At one with nature

  • BY Ken Eastwood |
  • September 23, 2009

Green is the new black for holidays, with ever more people seeking an experience that’s good for the mind and soul – and good for the planet, too.

This is ecotourism at its absolute best. On a stunning stretch of coastline, atop 80 m high mudstone cliffs overlooking isolated rocky beaches, there isn’t another soul around – unless you count a falcon riding the sea breeze, and the western grey kangaroos and tammar wallabies thumping through bristly bush peas along the cliff top. Cape Cassini, a wild and windswept 360 ha sanctuary on the north coast of Kangaroo Island, 135 km south-west of Adelaide, is completely self-sufficient. It has a 2.5 kW wind generator and 16 solar panels, which generate enough energy to power the usual household appliances, solar hot water and rainwater tanks. It even treats its own wastewater, which goes on to irrigate the organically farmed orchard. The cosy B&B has bedrooms with views over Investigator Strait and distant Althorpe Island, and takes no more than six people at a time. You can snuggle by the fire while eating home-cooked meals, drinking locally produced wine and watching the wildlife walk past, or explore walking tracks along the more than 2 km of coastline protected by private covenant.

“The reason we’ve only got three rooms for six people is because that is what we thought this area could sustain,” says Pat Welford who, with husband David, owns and runs Cape Cassini. “There’s a golden rule for ecotourism,” David chips in. “You look after the environment first and then the guests come to appreciate it.”

And appreciate it they do. Tourists are not only flocking to Kangaroo Island, a hotspot for ecotourism, but more and more they’re seeking out the wide range of sustainable, nature-based experiences around the country. According to 2008 research by Tourism Australia, about 70 per cent of international visitors to Australia – some 3.5 million people a year – participate in at least one nature-based activity, such as visiting a national park, zoo or botanic garden. And each year Australians make more than 15 million overnight domestic trips that include a nature activity such as bushwalking. The World Tourism Organization and The International Ecotourism Society both report that ecotourism is growing at three times the rate of tourism as a whole.

As Pat says, people are seeking out experiences where they can “be at one with the animals, and the sea and the sky”. But more than that, the best ecotourism experiences in the country address a deeper desire – to conserve and protect, and to learn along the way. At Cape Cassini, David runs personalised wildlife tours and each night records on a whiteboard the amount of power that has been generated on site, and the energy and water that have been used. It’s not done evangelistically, but shows, in black and white, the simple calculation required to live sustainably. “Part of being in a place is seeing the resources you are using,” Pat says. “Part of a role of an eco-place, surely, is to increase people’s awareness.”

Fight for the right
In the forests of Tasmania, when “ecotourism” is mentioned, passions run like the Franklin in flood. In 2002 Ecotourism Australia – a non-profit Queensland-based organisation that awards “eco-certification” – decided to accredit some of Forestry Tasmania’s tourism enterprises, including the Tahune AirWalk. The move outraged many environmentalists who have long objected to Forestry Tasmania’s practices. As a result, some other ecotourism ventures in the State refused to apply for accreditation or have anything to do with Ecotourism Australia.

In April last year, Forestry Tasmania was removed from the eco-accredited list. “They did not meet all our criteria and they were publicly de-certified,” says Stephen Pahl, who was Ecotourism Australia’s CEO at the time. “We have kicked out a few operators.”

Many of the Tasmanian “greenies” running tourism operations believe the ecotourism badge is thrown around too freely. Just ask Peter Power, who with his partner runs the carbon-neutral, solar- and wind-powered Rainbow Retreat near St Marys in north-eastern Tasmania managed as a “Land for Wildlife” area. (Land for Wildlife is a voluntary registration scheme, overseen by each State or Territory, for landholders who wish to manage areas of wildlife habitat on their property.) “We believe that true eco-properties are only ‘eco’ if they run off solar power and use minimal energy and/or contribute to the environment by means of placing a conservation covenant,” he says. “They’re not to be confused with ‘wilderness’ properties.”

There are many workable – and unworkable – definitions of ecotourism. One of the bluntest comes from Tasmanian Paul Dimmick of Huon Bush Retreats, another solar-powered, carbon-neutral ecotourism operation that is part of 1100 ha of private habitat reserve near Hobart, jointly owned by a group of residents under a common management plan. It has secluded cabins with outdoor baths tucked away among towering swamp gums, sassafras and dogwoods, as well as tepees and a camping area. “When you visit these places and experiences that call themselves ‘eco’, just ask yourself: ‘Are they there to serve the environment, or are they just there to exploit it?’” Paul says. “We based this whole place on conservation. The reason why we bought the place was to protect it from loggers. Then we needed to find a way to pay for it.”

Ecotourism Australia defines ecotourism as: “Ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation”. This broad definition encompasses much: as simple as going to a local national park for a picnic or a bushwalk, or as involved as travelling to Antarctica or joining a carbon-neutral 4WD tour in the Kimberley. At its core, ecotourism in Australia has three basic principles: sustainability, a commitment to increasing visitors’ understanding and appreciation of the natural environment, and respect and acknowledgement of the region’s indigenous history and culture.Yet it’s rare to find an ecotourism experience that convincingly fulfils all three.

In recent years, Australian ecotourism has expanded into all areas of the market – including very high-end options, such as the luxury eco-tents at Sal Salis, in the Cape Range National Park south of Exmouth, WA, which cost about $1300 per couple per night including meals. “There are a lot of people in the market who hear the word ‘ecotourism’ and think you’ve got to rough it, you have to have composting toilets, and you won’t be allowed to have a spa bath and so on,” Stephen says. “In the German market we now use ‘nature tourism’ rather than ‘ecotourism’ for this reason.”

Several luxury tourism operators actually find that because of the down-market connotations, they’re better off not playing up their eco-credentials. “When people come to stay, it gives them a nice feeling when they find out we’re eco-friendly, but it usually hadn’t played a part in their decision to come here at all,” says Phillippa Denne, whose gorgeous mountain-top eco-retreat on Mt Paul overlooks Freycinet NP on Tasmania’s east coast. The chic cabins were built using renewable and recyclable materials to a design which minimised impact on the environment, and the 486 ha property is managed as a Land for Wildlife property. “It wasn’t a marketing ploy – it was something we wanted to do,” Phillippa says. “We needed to find a way to make money out of the property without exploiting it.”

In the beginning

In a country as beautiful as Australia, nature-based tourism has a long history. One of the best-known pioneering ecotourism enterprises is O’Reilly’s, perched beside Lamington NP in south-eastern Queensland. Not long after 1911, when the O’Reilly family first started dairying in this spectacular rainforest-blanketed region with its ancient Antarctic beeches and breathtaking waterfalls, they discovered that tourists wanted to see the area – and would pay to do so. Gradually, the O’Reillys caught on to the fact that they could cater to more tourists and do less farming. They became honorary rangers of the park in 1919 and their first guesthouse opened in 1926. Today, they can accommodate more than 200 people in the guesthouse, and 2–3 people in each of 48 villas. Over three generations, the O’Reillys have turned the old dairy farm into a wildlife and ecotourism haven, with a strong emphasis on environmental education and a discovery centre that runs guided walks and tours.

Managing director Shane O’Reilly, one of the third- generation O’Reillys at Lamington, says the business has changed since his grandparents’ time. “In the early days they went anywhere – through the national park – on horseback, and that’s not the case anymore,” Shane says. “The O’Reillys, even 30 years ago, would go to a lookout and clear the trees back.” He says guests’ expectations have also changed markedly – they used to be hardened bushwalkers but most are now more interested in very short walks and soft adventure.

The most memorable experience for many at O’Reilly’s is the close encounters with wild animals that come in to feed. Guests who stand in front of the restaurant and hold out birdseed are soon surrounded by pademelons, parrots and bowerbirds, including stunning yellow-and-jet-black male regent bowerbirds. The practice is controversial. Many ecotourism ventures frown on feeding animals every day, arguing it encourages dependence on the food and affects the behaviour and number of animals in an area. “Ecotourism is being dumbed down to a level where it’s almost non-experiential,” says Shane. “We’ve gone from people feeding them their lunch, to us giving the birdseed to them, to us selling birdseed, and now managing it...there is a limit to how much and how you do it. Birds are staying no longer than 25 minutes, and only visiting 3–4 days a week. They’re actually healthier birds than the ones in the control site.”

Times change, and so do our expectations. As Tony Mayne, owner and operator of an eco-accredited caravan park at Trial Bay, on the NSW north coast, says: “The difficulty of remaining ‘eco’ and remaining current is that yesterday’s initiative is tomorrow’s norm.” This is why hotels now look out of date when they proudly proclaim their policy of not giving you new sheets and towels every day. Large eco-resorts such as O’Reilly’s, Hinchinbrook Island Wilderness Lodge & Resort (established in 1975) and Kingfisher Bay Resort on Fraser Island (established 1992) were all revolutionary when they started, but they don’t achieve all the sustainability plaudits given to some of the latest ecotourism ventures. “When Kingfisher Bay was established 17 years ago, it was quite unique – the design, landscaping,” says former general manager Tony Barradale, whose jurisdiction includes watching over one of the largest private-ranger groups in the country. “There was very serious commitment to the environment. There still is. But what we don’t do well – and what I hope we’re about to – is things like recycling and power generation. It’s been very much an afterthought.”

One of the main trends in the past decade has been reducing the size of ecotourism operations. Instead of large developments, the preference is for a handful of cabins, or tour groups that can fit in one small vehicle or boat. Tim Tranter, ex-president of Blue Mountains Tourism, NSW, and owner of tour company Tread Lightly, says one of the benefits of small groups is lower impact. “We’ve made a decision as a company to only take six people on a tour,” he says. “The question to ask is: ‘Is it the same when you leave?’”

Tim says one tea-tree bush that is visited on his tours shows that tourism in the environment can be productive, not destructive. He studied the way birds approached the bush to pinch off shoots and decided to incorporate the action in the “scratch and sniff” part of his tours. “About 20,000 people over seven years have taken a piece of this bush, and compared to the bush next door it has more flowers and looks in better condition,” he says. “It has more flowers, therefore more insects, therefore more birdlife.”

Dr Emily Moskwa, a research assistant at the Centre for Tourism and Leisure Management at the University of South Australia, has studied pastoralists in the Flinders Ranges, SA, who are venturing into ecotourism by opening up 4WD tracks and wildlife tours on their properties. According to Emily, many say their new tourism ventures have allowed them to reduce stocking rates and better look after their land. “Ecotourism was seen as one way to get some financial help,” she says. “You might be fencing off some land for conservation purposes, and the money from tourists may help offset those costs.”

Of course, not all ecotourism developments are good. “Unfortunately I have seen the construction of ecotourism accommodation in the Flinders Ranges on top of kangaroos’ paths to their regular watering holes,” Emily says. “This suggests the animals have had to find a new path to travel along, or come closer and closer to tourists.” But she’s also seen native grasses rebound and weeds decline when grazing is stopped in favour of an ecotourism venture.

At Ningaloo Reef in WA, ecotourists are actively helping whale-shark research by sending in photos they take of the ocean giants. The photos are plugged into a database that’s building a picture of the number, range and behaviour of the whale sharks (AG 89). “It’s a good opportunity for tourists to become citizen scientists and gives us the opportunity to use thousands more observations,” says Dr Brad Norman, CEO of ECOCEAN and adjunct research associate at Murdoch University. Those who send in a photo are emailed when their animal is sighted again. The sightings have shown that tourists are not driving whale sharks away; rather, a lot of them are seen again, year after year. “It’s a really positive collaboration between tourists, tour operators, managers and the scientists,” Brad says. “Tourism can – if it’s done the right way – have a benefit for a species like whale sharks.”

Animal welfare
“The louder you scream the more they’ll come over,” the ultra-enthusiastic guide yells into her microphone on a whale-watching tour in Hervey Bay, south-eastern Queensland. “We loooove you baby. C’mon, jump for us!” The 30-or-so tourists on board dutifully wave and cheer at a humpback whale mother and her new calf, and sure enough, the calf heaves itself out of the water. “C’mon people at the back of the boat – if you don’t make a noise the whales will go to one of the other boats!”

It feels strange – watching some of the most majestic, awe-inspiring creatures on earth, but being coerced into yelling, singing or dancing like an idiot to attract them. All I really want to do is admire them in silence. But the operators swear the whales are attracted to the louder, more visually stimulating vessels and it’s true, they do approach us – often to within metres.

Ongoing research into wildlife watching suggests that, to varying degrees, humans affect the animals they watch. Dolphins, for example, change their acoustic signals and behaviour when boats are near. According to Dr Luciana Möller of Macquarie University, studies in Port Stephens, NSW – the largest boat-based dolphin-watching area in the country – showed that dolphins don’t exhibit any resting behaviour when boats are within 100 m. (Boats are allowed to approach up to 50 m under some conditions.) But Luciana doesn’t propose banning dolphin-watching, acknowledging that many such ecotourism ventures contribute to ongoing dolphin research and conservation work. “I think it should be encouraged – it’s just trying to do it in a way that doesn’t affect normal dolphin behaviour,” she says.

Admittedly, the yelling in Hervey Bay is an unusual approach compared to most wildlife tours around the country. In Seal Bay, on Kangaroo Island, small groups are guided on foot down to the beach where hundreds of Australian sea lions lie around sunbaking. Quiet is essential and visitors are required to stay at least 10 m away. “This is observation, not interaction,” says guide, ranger Michelle Pohlner. “We don’t talk to them, we don’t touch them, we don’t sing to them.” There are only about 10–12,000 of these endangered animals left in the world, and 80 per cent are in SA. They pull up onto this beach for a rest after about three days at sea.

On the far north coast of NSW, a nocturnal wildlife tour has taken a novel approach to protecting the animals in its sights. Vision Walks uses $935 military-grade night-vision goggles and infra-red torches in World Heritage-listed Nightcap NP, so that no torches shine into the animals’ eyes. Participants walk around in total darkness gazing at frogs, pademelons, tawny frogmouths, possums, koalas and mice. Seeing the world clearly in monochrome is a marketable gimmick, and gives tourists an edge over some of the animals. “You can tell it doesn’t disturb them,” says Vision Walks owner/operator Wendy Bithell, who was told by an Animal Ethics Committee that the infra-red technology was better than spotlights. “I’ve had bandicoots running over our feet. We’re seeing more and more animals each time we go out.”

As my whale-watching boat starts heading across Hervey Bay for home, my companions descend into an awed silence, contemplating what they’ve witnessed. They talk in hushed tones and study their digital photos and videos. I keep scanning the sandy shores of Fraser Island as we pass, and finally have another ecotourism encounter I’ve been hoping for – a lone dingo trotting along the beach. Magnificent. Proud. King of its territory.

I keep my eyes on it long after our boat has passed, until eventually it plops down on the sand, paws out like a sphinx, as if patiently waiting for the next boatload of tourists.

Australian Geographic and Ken Eastwood thank all those mentioned for their assistance with this article. Ken’s travel was partially funded by State tourism bodies and some of the operators mentioned.

Useful websites
Ecotourism Australia: http://www.ecotourism.org.au
Indigenous experiences: http://www.aboriginalaustralia.com.au
Australian wildlife tourism: http://www.wildlifetourism.org.au
Latest Australian eco-news: http://www.ecodirectory.com.au
International ecotourism destinations and travel tips:
http://www.responsibletravel.com, http://www.itsagreengreenworld.com and http://www.ecotourdirectory.com