Australia is renowned worldwide for its natural wonders. So it’s no surprise that we’ve always had a thriving tourism scene as visitors from far and wide journey to see the local wildlife and scenery.
The catch-22 of this situation is that while tourism fuels the economy, it’s no secret that humans have a massive negative impact on the environment.
Most of the time this impact comes down to human negligence. You only have to look at the sheer amount of plastic that is found throttling wildlife in the ocean or the irreversible damage that has been done to Uluru after years of human climbing to see the damaging effect humans can have on the sites they travel so far to see.
But tourism doesn’t have to be this way, and it is possible to take a holiday without fear of adding to the problem.
As more people seek environmentally responsible holidays, a new branch of tourism has opened up and a pool of tourism operators have risen to meet the challenge. Ecotourism has become a holiday experience that travellers not only enjoy but will never forget.
What is ecotourism?
At its heart, ecotourism caters to those who wish to experience the natural and cultural environment of a destination without damaging it.
Nowadays, there are more than enough tourism operators who care just as much about protecting the natural environment as they do about promoting it. This branch of sustainable tourism has only grown over the past decades as the world makes more conscious moves to preserve its natural wonders.
The ecotourism umbrella covers a large range of businesses, from entire eco-friendly resorts to individual attractions and experiences.
Often times these businesses are double-sided and use the profits they earn from promoting these natural habitats to contribute to their conservation. The cyclical ideal of ecotourism ensures that we can continue to access the planet’s natural wonders for years to come.
What practices sustain ecotourism?
There’s a lot that goes into an ecotourism business. Everything from accommodation to waste management to vehicles needs to be considered. Finding environmentally-friendly options for these can be difficult – but it’s not impossible.
For example, Wild Bush Luxury operates a number of environmentally-friendly luxury resorts in Australia, but servicing these resorts in a sustainable way requires every aspect to be considered. They use things like solar power, recyclable water bottles, and campfires or lanterns as a source of light rather than running electricity.
Ningaloo Discovery operates tours across the Ningaloo reef in Western Australia, including coveted whale shark experiences.
To provide these experiences, the health and safety of the whales themselves are paramount, which is why portions of all ticket sales go to local whale shark conservation and research projects. All staff and guides are trained in whale shark interaction and marine specialists are always on board for tours.
A focus on education is another huge part of ecotourism and is something that is a big focus for Sailaway, a leading ecotourism operator for the Great Barrier Reef in Port Douglas.
“We are privileged to deliver the highest level of best practices and marine education,” Steve Edmondson, owner and operator of Sailaway, told Lifehacker Australia.
“The success of this helps those involved reduce, reuse and recycle and hopefully be kinder to our planet and the pressures of climate change.”
As an accredited ecotourism operator, Edmondson said Sailaway is always looking to lead by example and continue finding sustainable practices. He said there are plans in place for Sailaway to achieve carbon offset provider accreditation and to grow more native trees.
Similarly, Ningaloo Discovery said it’s aiming to bring in another catamaran that’s powered by wind and solar to eliminate the use of one of its powered vessels.
It goes to show that promoting ecotourism status is one thing but continuing to give back to the environment and seek out more sustainable avenues is what really sets these businesses apart.
Why is ecotourism important?
In Australia, most of our country’s appeal lies in its natural beauties, but the Great Barrier Reef has shown us that natural wonders aren’t a given. Switching to ecotourism is vital to avoid more situations like the devastating damage to the reef, and it helps both nature and businesses survive.
The value of ecotourism starts with the business itself. Many ecotourism operators are proud to promote the environment and also give back to it. For instance, Sailaway runs a number of environmental initiatives in the background, like its tree farm and coral nurture program.
Having a sustainable outlook and mindset ingrained into the business values, staff and practices is key here, because for a lot of these operators, destroying the environment would also destroy their business.
“We ignore the environment at our peril,” Charlie Carlow, CEO of Wild Bush Luxury told Lifehacker, “Without the environmental focus we have no business. So every facet of our tourism business has to have that in mind.”
This is just one of the challenges facing sustainable tourism businesses right now.
The struggle to compete
It can be a struggle for these independent operators to compete with some of the more luxurious tourist attractions. There are plenty of travellers who would prefer a five-star hotel over a sustainable eco-cabin and these ideals can shuffle out smaller or lesser-known businesses.
“We are a small local family owner-operated marine tourism company which genuinely cares for people and the environment,” Edmondson said of Sailaway.
“A challenge is for potential visitors to know small boutique nature-based experiences exist, offering high quality and great value.”
The impact of COVID-19
Like every travel operator, ecotourism has been hit hard by COVID-19. The Australian government has attempted to boost local tourism with a number of schemes this year, but economic factors aren’t the only things to consider.
“It’s things like packaging and single-use plastics that have increased since the coronavirus outbreak that we struggle to find hygienic alternatives for,” Sarah Ellis, from Ningaloo Discovery, told Lifehacker.
The world quickly took up the call to use disposable face masks and gloves to stop the spread of the pandemic. But this becomes infinitely harder for environmentally-focused businesses who need to comply with both government rules and also their own sustainable ethos.
There’s also the fact that, while humans can cause plenty of damage to the natural habitat there are a lot of environments that actually rely on humans to survive.
“There are nature tourism businesses in, for example, Africa that are suffering far more and the lack of international visitors for them is impacting directly on wildlife populations, with poaching syndicates having a freer hand to target key species,” Carlow said.
“There are so many environments that are ultimately dependent on tourism for their sustainability and without it, local people have to find alternatives to sustain themselves.”
Tourism mindsets are changing
While travelling is still a luxury for many, the industry’s booming success in recent decades goes to show there’s a huge appetite for new experiences. Particularly now that we can’t go anywhere at all.
Numerous surveys have shown that travellers are actively looking to book sustainable holidays in the future. While there are obvious benefits to the planet by choosing this option, there’s also something about an eco-friendly experience that just hits differently.
Take the whale shark encounters offered at Ningaloo reef, for example. These are activities that are not only enjoyable but they’re genuinely moving as people connect with nature in a new and profound way.
“Feedback has provided us with an insight into customer behaviour and the indications are that more people are seeking a sustainable and rewarding activity,” Ellis said.
Edmondson echoed these sentiments, saying “ecotourism has more potential to grow into everyday thinking for the best ways to enjoy and appreciate natural attractions in the most relaxing and sustainable way.”
It’s not only the experience itself but also the satisfaction in choosing an experience that supports the environment.
“Taking an ‘eco-friendly’ holiday can be personally rewarding and travellers who choose ecotourism are taking a productive step towards becoming responsible consumers,” Erica Johnson from Ecotourism Australia told Lifehacker.
“If you are looking to minimise your carbon footprint, travel with climate in mind, seeking to partake in authentic, community-minded experiences and experiential learning, then ecotourism is for you.”
As the mindsets of travellers change, so have the business plans of tourism operators. Some do this with care for the environment at their heart, but others do it purely for branding.
“Ecotourism is a label that is attached to many businesses, some of them with justification, some of them purely as a ‘greenwashing’ exercise,” Carlow said.
Greenwashing is prevalent in many industries including the likes of oil and the electric vehicle market.
“Tourism businesses (and other businesses) are (a) looking to capitalise on this growing market and (b) becoming more educated about sustainable business practices,” Lina Cronin, communications and marketing manager at Ecotourism Australia, told Lifehacker.
“I would say that greenwashing either arises when a business intentionally uses keywords like ‘eco’, ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ to attract travellers seeking sustainable experiences – without actually doing anything to back this up, or – more often – when businesses are doing something (e.g. recycling) and use this to market themselves as being a sustainable business, without understanding that true sustainability is a complete revolution in every aspect of your business practices.”
This practice of greenwashing is an important issue for travellers to be aware of when booking a holiday. It’s incredibly easy to be hoodwinked by claims that aren’t backed up by actions, which is why it’s vital to do your research.
How can tourists find sustainable operators in Australia?
While there are plenty of excellent ecotourism operators out there, it all comes down to tourists doing their due diligence to find them.
“These days it’s easy for tourists to conduct their own research and the best thing to do is search out a reputable ecotourism accredited operator and book their experience directly with that operator,” Ellis said.
But where does one find a reputable ecotourism operator?
Ecotourism Australia is an NFP organisation seeking to inspire sustainable tourism practices with a dedicated certification program. This helps tourists connect with operators who are guaranteed to provide a sustainable experience.
“Booking with a certified operator assures travellers that their holiday is backed by a strong, well-managed commitment to sustainable practices and provides high-quality nature-based tourism experiences,” Johnson said.
To be awarded an ECO certification, businesses need to demonstrate sustainable practices within their operations which are verified through third-party audits. Once verified, businesses can promote themselves as an ecotourism-certified operator.
Seeking out the ecotourism badge on a business’ website makes it that much easier for people searching for a sustainable holiday. Another good idea is to consult the new Green Travel Guide that is backed by Ecotourism Australia.
It might seem like booking an eco-friendly holiday requires a lot of hard work, but with a breadth of operators and resources at our disposal, it’s actually easier than ever before. Operators like Wild Bush Luxury, Sailaway and Ningaloo Discovery prove that tourism experiences can be sustainable and meaningful without sacrificing quality.
It’s the rest of the world that needs to catch up now, but when we do it’ll be hard to look back.
Humans may have an impact on the environment, but a true ecotourist experience can also have a remarkable impact on humans.