AUSTRALIAN TOURISM IS HEADING TOWARD A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE

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

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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 

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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 

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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 

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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