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Key findings from Ecotourism Australia’s inaugural ECO Think | Destination Forum: Australian tourism must focus on collaboration, communication and partnerships to achieve a sustainable future – this was the core message coming out of last month’s inaugural ECO Think | Destination Forum held by Ecotourism Australia (EA) on Gumbaynggirr Country in Coffs Coast and Bellingen Shire.
The event, sponsored by WWF-Australia and Destination North Coast, was attended by 60 delegates from around the country, as well as representatives from Tourism Australia, state and regional tourism organisations, protected area management agencies and tourism industry councils as well as independent consultants, the Ecotourism Australia board of directors and new EA CEO, Elissa Keenan.
The forum, which also provided participants insights into the ongoing sustainability journeys of Australian destinations involved in Ecotourism Australia’s world-leading ECO Destination Certification program, was held at the Aanuka Beach Resort in Coffs Harbour from 22-25 March.
CEO Elissa Keenan said of the event:
“Currently, we have 20 destinations around Australia involved in the ECO Destination Certification program, which uses globally recognised criteria to address destination sustainability through the lens of the quadruple bottom line of economic, environmental, social and cultural sustainability.
“Through this program, we’ve fostered a strong network of passionate destination managers faced with similar challenges in their regions, all working towards the same goal, and it was inspiring to have them all in the same room at our ECO Think Forum.
“Most significantly, through the support of WWF-Australia, we are working with 10 of these destinations to ‘build back better’ after the devastating bushfires of 2019 and 2020. This partnership is enabling us to work together to support these regional communities to again prosper through a sustainable tourism industry.”
Key takeaways from the forum were that nature and tourism are strong allies, that community and culture are important pillars of ecotourism, that ecotourism is a tool for economic development and that sustainability is an increasing consideration for travellers.
Nature and tourism are strong allies
Image: Ecotourism Australia CEO Elissa Keenan and Mayor of Coffs Harbour Paul Amos present Fiona Barden Ashley Sambrooks from Coffs Harbour Regional Council their certificate of ECO Destination Certification at the Ecotourism level / Leah Moore.
The tourism and conservation sectors are increasingly collaborating for greater environmental protection. This is particularly the case following the destructive bushfires that battered Australia in 2019 and 2020, as affected regions began the process of recovery by focusing on ‘building back better.’
As part of this recovery effort, Ecotourism Australia partnered with WWF-Australia to assist heavily impacted regions to build back better using the ECO Destination Certification criteria as a framework. Today, 18 destinations (10 of them sponsored by WWF-Australia) are progressing through their certification journey and establishing greater resilience to other threats, whether these be natural disasters or pandemics. Coffs Coast, NSW’s first certified ECO Destination, is the first destination to be certified as part of this partnership – and the destination was able to showcase their journey during the ECO Think Forum.
Another example of nature and tourism being strong allies is Kangaroo Island, a destination which has seen an influx of visitors keen to get involved in conservation efforts post-bushfires. By collaborating with EA on the ‘Island Guardians’ project, the Kangaroo Island Tourism Alliance shared at the Forum how it aimed to bridge the gap between ecotourism and conservation and attract the right kind of tourist that wants to learn about and respect the natural environment.
Community and culture are important pillars of ecotourism
Image: Welcome to Gumbaynggirr Country ceremony / Leah Moore
There is a highly valuable opportunity to learn from Indigenous rangers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporations and Traditional Custodians across Australia when it comes to destination sustainability. One such inspiring journey presented at the Forum was that of the Mossman Gorge Centre.
Located in Australia’s first ECO Destination, Port Douglas Daintree, the Mossman Gorge Centre was born with one man’s vision to mend a community impacted by the damaging effects of overcrowding. Traditional Custodian and Elder of the Kuku Yalanji community, Roy Gibson, founded the Mossman Gorge Centre to meaningfully connect to travellers passing through, educate tourists about Kuku Yalanji language and culture, create jobs, and establish sustainable tourism in Mossman Gorge. In 2021, four national parks including the Daintree Rainforest are formally returned to its Traditional Custodians.
Another example of community and culture being important pillars of ecotourism was destination events, which can foster cultural and environmental education, targeting locals and visitors alike and drawing communities together through celebrating a destination’s natural assets. ECO Destination applicant Bundaberg’s annual Milbi Festival, as presented by Bundaberg Regional Council, marks the beginning of turtle breeding season with the aim of educating the public on marine conservation, increasing awareness of cultural diversity and increasing sustainable visitation to the region.
Ecotourism is a tool for economic development
Image: Bobby Flaspohler
Insights from the Forum showed that destination managers are embracing the quadruple bottom line – environmental, economic, social and cultural sustainability – through recognising the significant role of sustainable tourism development in building communities and boosting economic development.
Councils in applicant and certified ECO Destinations, such as the Great Ocean Road Marine Park Authority (GORMPA), are making strides to incorporate more ECO certified tourism experiences to foster a deeper appreciation for the environment amongst travellers. GORMPA was established with the purpose of managing, protecting, rehabilitating and fostering resilience of the natural, cultural and heritage values in collaboration with the region’s Traditional Custodians for a sustainable future. The revenue raised from their commercial projects is reinvested to ensure that the region can be enjoyed for generations to come.
Regions in the ECO Destination Program have seen the importance of nature-based and sustainable tourism development in not only developing the local tourism industry but cementing a sustainability ethos in the broader community.
Sustainability is an increasing consideration for travellers
Image: Urunga Wetlands / Bellingen Shire
Tourism Australia’s Penny Rafferty spoke to sustainability from a consumer demand perspective, noting that Australia’s natural assets are not just for domestic tourists to enjoy but are a primary driver for international visitors choosing Australia over other destinations.
She also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had spurred an urge to travel more responsibly, with Tourism Australia finding that 82% of travellers want to make responsible travel choices because of the pandemic and 79% find it important to choose tourism providers that have a solid sustainability policy. For tourism providers, it was noted that storytelling is a key aspect of sustainability interpretation.
For more information about the ECO Think | Destination Forum, visit the event website.
Cover image: Welcome to Gumbaynggirr Country ceremony / Leah Moore
Swimming with dolphins and seals, captain and owner of Sea All Dolphin Swims and founder of Southern Ocean Environmental Link (SOEL), James ‘Murph’ Murphy doesn’t have your traditional office. Out on the waters of Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay each day, Murph, has witnessed firsthand the detrimental impacts of plastic pollution on Australia’s marine environment.
From marine birds with stomachs full of plastic to seals entangled in fishing line, the visible impacts of plastic pollution are undeniable and at times, irreversible. There was even one instance in Corio Bay, Geelong, a few years ago where plastic from a landfill on the north shore leeched into the ocean, causing all individuals of a certain species of fish to be born and remain female, effectively destroying that local population and destabilising the local food web.
Whether it is debris from fishermen or general litter from visitors, Murph suggests we all have a role to play in the plastic crisis threatening our oceans. This is why he is on a mission to clean up Australia’s waters and safeguard them for future generations through his plastic recycling and education program for students in partnership with SOEL.
SOEL was founded to change people’s attitudes toward the marine environment and to educate the next generation about current trends, future implications and environmental stewardship. Their various projects, such as the plastic recycling program, aim to provide participants with the tools to achieve this vision. Through donations and fundraising efforts, SOEL can facilitate interpretive marine experiences that are proven to create marine environment advocates.
SOEL’s school group programs are centred on marine education and aim to show students how our actions can impact the marine environment, regardless of where they live. Including an interactive experience on the water where students have the opportunity to get up close with marine life, the program educates participants about the impact plastic is having on wildlife and the fragile marine ecosystems that support them. After the students meet the wild marine animals on the boat tour, they then head to the SOEL recycling centre. Here they learn the entire process involved in recycling plastic bottle caps, from collection right through to repurposing into new usable items, which they can take as souvenirs. Seeing the process through from start to end shows students how each of us can have an impact on the marine environment and that the steps to help improve its health are easy and achievable.
Murph believes that it is important for young people to become involved in, not just marine advocacy, but environmental advocacy more broadly. “They need to understand at their core that our experience here on earth is not about how much money we make or which car we drive,” he said, “it is about the impact that each of us makes toward the survival of all life on earth.”
Murph knows that marine advocacy forms just one part of a larger environmental problem and, through educating students, hopes to emphasise that it is our choices that determine the future of our planet.
It was, therefore, an easy decision to incorporate these values into the business model of Sea All Dolphin Swims. Combining their renowned marine education with Australia’s first hands-on plastic recycling workshop demonstrates to participants some of the simple and effective ways to make a difference and alleviate some of the hopelessness surrounding environmental conservation. Murph firmly believes that through active participation in the recycling program, participants “take away more than just a new product, they take away a sense of hope and empowerment”.
Photo credits: James Murphy/Southern Ocean Environmental Link
It takes dedication and passion to pave the way for a sustainable future. By beginning their ECO Certification journey, tourism operators can ensure they are putting in place effective and ethical sustainability practices for the longevity of their operation and the conservation of the natural environment. Here are the tourism operators who completed their criteria and achieved certification in March 2022!
Waitawhile Daintree (Kuku-Yalanji Country/Cow Bay, QLD)
Photo credit: Waitawhile Daintree
Joining the Ecotourism Australia family is Waitawhile Daintree who recently achieved Ecotourism certification for their eco-retreat accommodation. Situated in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest, Waitawhile Daintree invites guests to relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of the rainforest at their pet-friendly, environmentally responsible property. The retreat’s magnesium mineral pool helps to relieve stress and anxiety, detoxify the body, reduce aches and pains and encourage sleep, and is popular amongst guests.
Waitawhile Daintree is committed to an eco-philosophy and is dedicated to protecting and nurturing the surrounding ecosystem. Each self-contained room has energy efficient roof fans and large windows and doors to maximise ventilation and airflow for year-round comfort as well as water-saving showerheads. The business became fully solar-powered in 2021 and all light fittings and appliances are energy efficient. In an effort to tackle climate change, Waitawhile Daintree monitors its carbon emissions and has undertaken a native replanting initiative to ensure each guest’s stay is carbon neutral.
Discover more about Waitawhile Daintree here.
Overland Oz (Larrakia Country/Ludmilla, NT)
Photo credit: Overland Oz
Newly Ecotourism and ROC certified, Overland Oz provides educational safaris of the Australian Outback. Overland Oz provides outdoor education, including hiking and kayaking, camping experiences and tours connecting visitors to the local Indigenous places, people and stories. With a dominant focus on school groups, they offer a variety of opportunities such as learning traditional art styles or participation in community service projects in partnership with Traditional Land Owners and Elders within Kakadu National Park.
Sustainable tourism is at the heart of Overland Oz’s operations and they are committed to upholding pro-environmental behaviours, for example, correct disposal of waste, not straying from bushland tracks, watching wildlife from a distance and discouraging the use of products, creams and aerosols for their harmful chemicals where possible. Through their community service projects, Overland Oz and their guests have planted over 200 trees of 52 species, implemented strategic irrigation of the plants, and taught local community members to maintain the gardens.
Navigate Expeditions (Various, NSW)
Image: Navigate Expeditions
Navigate Expeditions have achieved ECO certified Advanced Ecotourism and Climate Action Business certification for their collection of immersive environmental tours. Their tours are run on the NSW South Coast and include activities such as hiking in the Mimosa Rocks, Bournda and Ben Boyd National Parks or kayaking the Bega, Bermagui, Merimbula and Pambula rivers. Their multi or single day all-inclusive tours cater to small groups and can be customised to include gourmet food, wellness, art, photography, birdwatching, and accessible activities.
Navigate Expeditions is conscious of their impact on the climate and monitor their emissions monthly and assess these annually to reduce and offset their impact. Eco-friendly practices such as using electric vehicles, setting aside land on the Sapphire Coast for conservation, utilising local products and human resources, and planting trees for each multi-day tour guest are central to their philosophy. They also ensure they work with suppliers that share their ethos and have carbon offsetting programs. Visitor education is a major priority for Navigate Expeditions, and staff attend conferences and training to keep informed of environmental legislation, technology and information as well as passing their knowledge of climate change on to their guests.
Congratulations to our members who have grown their suite of certifications!
- Fitzroy Island Adventures (Gimuy/Cairns, QLD) – Advanced Ecotourism certified and Climate Action Business certified
- Reef Magic Cruises (Gimuy/Cairns, QLD) – Respecting Our Culture certified
- Bungle Bungle Savannah Lodge (Purnululu National Park, WA)
Cover photo: Reef Magic Tours