Biodiversity publications archive

Two way track

Biodiversity Conservation and Ecotourism: an investigation of linkages, mutual benefits and future opportunities
Biodiversity Series, Paper No. 5

Noel Preece and Penny van Oosterzee, Ecoz-Ecology Australia and David James, Ecoservices Pty Ltd
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1995

1. Introduction

1.1 Background

Tourism is one of Australia's fastest growing industries. It is a major source of foreign exchange, domestic product, income and employment. Within this sector, a trend described variously as nature-based tourism and ecotourism (NBE) has emerged as a strong segment over the past few decades. The prospects for expansion of this trade, based on both international and domestic visitors, are significant.

Historically, the increase of NBE worldwide was largely a result of the increase in awareness of the plight of the world's dwindling biological diversity and a reaction against mass tourism and its demonstrative uncaringness of conservation issues. The conservation of biological diversity, usually shortened to biodiversity, is now seen as a priority of national governments and the general community.

This report is the result of a study commissioned by the Biodiversity Unit in the Environmental Strategies Directorate of the Commonwealth Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories to investigate potential for integrating biodiversity conservation with ecotourism. Its main objective is to identify and where possible assess the potential long-term benefits and opportunities of strategically integrating biodiversity conservation requirements with the future needs of the nature-based and ecotourism industry. It presents a national approach to formulating and implementing strategic plans for this important economic sector.

1.2 Nature-Based and Ecotourism (NBE)

Ecotourism is defined in the National Ecotourism Strategy (CDoT 1994a) as:

Nature-based tourism that involves education and interpretation of the natural environment and is managed to be ecologically sustainable. (p17).

It recognises that 'natural environment' includes cultural components and that 'ecologically sustainable' involves an appropriate return to the local community and long-term conservation of the resource.

The term 'ecotourism' was originally defined as:

travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated areas with the specific object of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery, its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations found in these areas. (Caballos-Lascurain 1988).

There are many other definitions sprinkled throughout the literature and an academic industry which has thrived on the analysis of the 'ecotourism' phenomenon. In the tourism industry as a whole the terms 'ecotourism' and 'nature-based tourism' are almost always used interchangeably and indiscriminately. We have intentionally avoided adhering strictly to any definitions since we believe that the concept of ecotourism has already matured and developed beyond the original attempts at definition, that the whole industry is changing rapidly, and that elements of nature-based and ecotourism can enter all segments of the tourism market. Our reference to NBE implies this broader view. The future of NBE and biodiversity conservation is dependent on maintaining a flexible approach to their interrelationships.

This notion of change and breadth of concept was anticipated by the President of the Ecotourism Society, David Western, who suggested that:

There will never be a firm division between tourism and ecotourism. Ecotourists must define themselves as an avantgarde camp that brings out the best of the tourism market and provides a model for the rest of the world. (Wood 1992).

Rather than suggesting that nature based or ecotourism is a separate sector of the industry, the Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Group on Tourism (ESDWG 1991) suggested that ecotourism is a situation where 'the idea of a symbiotic relationship between tourism and environment becomes most apparent', and that tourism facilities and services exist in a continuum, from those which are natural resource dependent for their operation, through those which are independent of natural resources. Ecotourism and nature-based tourism can form part of many types of travellers' experiences, varying from a few hours of nature-appreciation, through to intensive long-duration tours of a month or more. A one-hour presentation of marine biology on a mainstream cruise on the Great Barrier Reef, a talk at the base of Uluru, a guided walk and talk by a ranger in a national park, or a mainstream cruise of Yellow Waters in Kakadu National Park are all examples of nature-based and ecotourism. NBE should be considered as woven into the broad fabric of tourism, and should not be limited by artificially trying to categorise the phenomenon. We are conscious that this report uses categorisations such as 'ecotourist profiles' for analysis. This is simply because the data have been based on these categorisations.

Interestingly, ecotourism (in the purest sense) as apparently intended in the National Ecotourism Strategy, is confined to perhaps 60-80 small tour operators (Southern 1995, pers. comm.), many perhaps financially marginal (see also section 7.1). The reality seems to be that the supposed ecotourism "boom" phenomenon is today largely a media-driven one. In a very dynamic industry the role of ecotourism may already be historical; just as conservation groups have been instrumental in the 'greening' of Government bureaucracies, ecotourism has been instrumental in the 'greening' of the tourism industry.

For example, in the Northern Territory, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia, a number of the larger, more mainstream operators employ guides qualified in natural history and operate natural history tours in groups smaller than their usual size. Industry organisations such as the Pacific Asia Travel Association have rigourous environmental ethics and have supported wildlife projects. In the Northern Territory, the NT branch of Tourism Training Australia is perhaps leading the way in developing, jointly with the Northern Territory University, a Tour Guide Course which has a strong emphasis on interpretation and environmental and cultural sensitivity (W. Jones 1995, pers. comm.). Various tourism regional and Master plans promote a strong environmental ethic.

That the term ecotourism is clouded in confusion, may well be a reflection of the fact that it has less and less relevance in an industry where the differences between ecotourism and tourism are becoming less distinct. Many industry members including operators, agents, wholesalers and government marketing managers now avoid the term because they feel that it has become misleading, has gained a poor image, is not particularly useful, and means very different things to different people.

Given its tiny base, it is surprising that so many resources have gone into the development of ecotourism strategies, plans, workshops and policies. Logic would dictate that the intention of these strategies is to consider ecotourism as a broader concept than is often stated and assumed, and includes operators and properties across the tourism spectrum, regardless of size.

None of this is intended to suggest that the tourism industry does not need to improve its environmental credentials. It does suggest that it is unreasonable to put the onus of environmental responsibility for the industry as a whole on to a very small, often marginal group, simply because the group has a label of ecotourism or nature-based tourism.

Responsibility can be and should be held by all facets of the industry. It is the industry as a whole in its policies, plans and negotiations that should be supporting the conservation of Australia's biodiversity because, amongst other things, it is demonstrable that when new national parks or reserves are created, the industry as a whole benefits from the opportunities created.

In considering the scope of the potential for integrating NBE and biodiversity conservation, we have considered NBE to embrace the full spectrum of nature and culture-related tourism. This is not limited to tours, but includes walks, talks, resorts, and other accommodation, and other facets of the industry and tourism activities, whether private or industry based, and people partaking of nature-oriented activities also use the same facilities as other tourists.

NBE utilises a diverse range of places. The 'natural environment' encompasses a large part of Australia and, while much NBE occurs outside protected areas, the large proportion of ecotourism and nature-based tourism occurs on national parks, many within a day's drive or less of major cities (Coveney 1993, p. 22). Despite this, NBE does not necessarily occur in areas of high biodiversity value, as a large proportion of national parks have not been reserved for, and are not necessarily of high biodiversity conservation value. Historically, reasons for reservation have been catchment protection, scenic value, recreational amenity, and landscape protection, amongst others. In more recent decades, increased awareness of the inadequacy of conservation of biodiversity in national parks and other reserves has led to new approaches being developed and in some cases utilised for identification and reservation of national parks and reserves (Margules et al. 1982; Margules et al. 1988; McKenzie et al. 1989; Pressey & Nicholls 1989).

The principle of ecological sustainability is often taken to mean little more than minimising impact. This philosophy is based on accepting that there will be an impact from tourism. Incremental small impacts inevitably lead to long-term negative ecological consequences which cannot be sustainable. All tourism, not just ecotourism and nature-based tourism is dependent on the natural resources of Australia, and must be a more positive contributor to ecological sustainability, by reversing negative impacts and providing some nett gain through contributions in kind, practice and finance.

In summary, we consider that the concept of ecotourism has evolved over the past decade from a reaction to mass tourism to a force which is contributing to the general greening of the tourism industry. In this sense it can be seen as a process and its importance in inducing change in the tourism industry may be more significant than its categorisation as a small niche market of small operators. The greening of tourism is essential for the ecological and sociological advancement and sustainability of the industry.

1.3 Biodiversity: definition and significance

Biodiversity, or biological diversity, is the variety within and among living organisms and of the ecological systems they comprise (Bridgewater et al. 1992). The Draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity (ANZECC Task Force on Biological Diversity 1993) defines biological diversity as:

the variety of all life forms – the different plants, animals and micro-organisms, the genes they contain and the ecosystems of which they form a part.

Biodiversity conservation is a relatively recent term which embraces and springs from the concepts of conservation of national parks and wilderness, wildlife, landscapes and ecosystems, and is the result of better understanding of the needs for conservation of biological diversity. Biodiversity can be considered in terms of genes, species and ecosystems. Frequently, biodiversity is thought of as simply the variety of animals and plants, partly because they are the most conspicuous elements of biodiversity. The genetic variety, that is the variety within a species, is equally important, as is the variety of ecosystems, or the way in which the plants, animals and microorganisms organise themselves in relation to each other and the abiotic or non-living world. In other words, genetic diversity is the variety of genetic information contained in the total genes of individual plants, animals and microorganisms and occurs within and between populations of species. Species diversity is the variety of living organisms on the earth, and ecosystem diversity relates to the variety of habitats, biotic communities, and ecological processes in the biosphere.

These definitions correspond to others such as those used by the Resource Assessment Commission in its Inquiry on Kakadu Conservation Zone (1991) and its Forest and Timber Inquiry (1992).

The value of Australia's biodiversity derives from its unique geological history, and the life that has evolved in isolation from the rest of the world for over 40 million years. This biodiversity is reflected in the astonishingly high levels of endemism in the Australian biota. Endemic species (species found naturally nowhere else in the world) comprise 85 per cent of vascular plants, most insects and other invertebrates, 82 per cent of mammals, 93 per cent of frogs, 89 per cent of reptiles, almost half of birds, and an unknown number of non-vascular plants and microorganisms (Mummery, Hardy et al. 1994, p7).

Australia is also special in terms of its relict species, many being living descendants of Gondwanan fauna and flora (Mummery, Hardy et al. 1994, pp. 8,9). The ecosystems, too, are unique, ranging from the small alpine ecosystems in the southern alps which are probably both relicts of colder times and products of more temperate species evolution, patches of rainforest on the east coast which have survived since Gondwanan times, and vast areas, around 22 per cent, of the continent dominated by a single species – Acacia aneura, or Mulga – and around 25 per cent (ERIN 1995, database) covered by two genera of grasses Triodia and Plectrachne, known as Spinifex, which originated in Australia. special features include the richest plant assemblages in the world in the southwestern corner of Australia, more families of plants than anywhere else, the world's richest ant and lizard faunas in the arid zone, some of the most significant wetlands in the world, two of the most significant coral reefs in the world, and numerous other distinctive features, many of them of very high value to tourism in Australia. The significance of Australia's biota is discussed in the recent publication Australia's Biodiversity: an overview of selected significant components (Mummery, Hardy et al. 1994).

1.4 Relationship between biodiversity and NBE

It is no coincidence that the concepts of ecotourism and biodiversity conservation evolved at roughly the same time. Ecotourism was a natural reaction to mainstream tourism which was perceived to be the major contributor to the degradation of the natural attractions on which it is based. Yet, from the point of view of the conservation of biodiversity, it doesn't matter at all whether visitors to an area are led by a trained or untrained guide, or whether the tour is classified as an ecotour or a large group day trip. Australia's biodiversity, one of the main resources of tourism, is under severe threat, with many ecosystems and species suffering serious declines (ANZECC Task Force on Biological Diversity 1993, pp. 67-72). As explained by Ziffer (1989):

There is a chilling awareness spreading throughout the world of the urgent need for environmental protection and resuscitation. The spread of the conservation ethic, bolstered by the efforts of conservation groups, political initiatives, and the media, has influenced the choice of travel destinations. Tour operators are packing trips to rapidly disappearing wilderness and tourists are scampering to see areas which may not exist in a few years. Some have a fatalistic attitude and want a glimpse of the scenery before it fades away. Others recognise the link between tourism dollars and preservation, and want to support the conservation of these highly threatened areas.

The need for environmental protection and rehabilitation was recognised also by the ESD Working Group on Tourism (1991), which found that 'a major motivation for tourism activities in Australia, both domestic and international, is to experience aspects of Australia's natural and cultural environment. Tourism development which exploits and degrades the environment is not only contrary to the principles of ESD, but is also likely to be ultimately self defeating'.

In a positive light, the relationship between biodiversity and NBE can and should be mutually reinforcing. On the one hand, the declared and publicly promoted protection of natural features, ecosystems and biodiversity acts as a strong attractor for the tourism trade and provides a vehicle for the development of national and regional economies. On the other, there are opportunities – and indeed a strong obligation – for the tourism trade to promote and contribute to biodiversity conservation.

Australia's rich resources of natural environments and biodiversity are valuable economic assets for tourism. For the tourist, biodiversity conservation is most obvious at the ecosystem or species level in areas of natural beauty and ecological interest, such as the Wet Tropics, the Great Barrier Reef, the inland deserts and alpine areas, which are all major attractions to international and domestic visitors.

Tourism is recognised as a major user of biological resources while also providing employment for many Australians, supporting secondary industries, and contributing significantly to the economy (ANZECC Task Force on Biological Diversity 1993). Benefits arising from the conservation of Australia's biodiversity are often grossly undervalued. The protection of natural areas assists in the provision of environmental services such as water supply, soil conservation, nutrient cycling and waste assimilation (Biodiversity Unit 1993). There is an urgent need to apply positive methods of identifying and quantifying the benefits in order to demonstrate the value of natural ecosystems to government, industry and the community.

Numerous opportunities and benefits can be derived by strategically integrating biodiversity conservation requirements with future tourism needs. Ziffer (1989) for example has suggested that 'the goal of ecotourism is to capture a portion of the enormous global tourism market by attracting visitors to natural areas and using the revenues to fund local conservation and fuel economic development'.

The ESD Working Group concluded that tourism as a whole can exist on an ecologically sustainable basis in Australia and recommended that it would be mutually beneficial for both economic and ecological values if the tourism industry develops in accordance with the principles of ESD.

Yet there are limits to the scale and extent of ecotourism and its potential contribution to biodiversity conservation. Ecotourism is clearly not a panacea for conservation. In 1992, Kurt Kutay, the President of Wildland Adventures at the World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas said:

My biggest impression was just how much the conservation movement is counting on ecotourism to save wildlands and bring benefits to communities. I feel there was much naivety among natural resource managers about what ecotourism can do. On the other hand there were very keen insights by individuals which touched on the critical factors for success or failure. But I really have to wonder how much of the reality will get translated into necessary reforms to make ecotourism successful. (Wood 1992).

The answer to Kutay's question may well be in eliminating the false distinction being made between tourism and ecotourism (see section 1.2). The narrow focus on the term 'ecotourism' has blinkered the view of planners and policy makers. In effect we are not seeing the forest for the trees. The National Ecotourism Strategy describes the characteristics of the NBE market:

A large proportion of tourists attracted by the natural environment are in fact not seeking a 'total immersion' experience but rather wish to stay in an urban or resort setting and venture out for short visits to observe nature. While such experiences are not generally considered ecotourism, if effectively managed they can provide an efficient and sustainable means for relatively large numbers of people to enjoy some exposure to the natural environment with a much lower impact than would occur if they were to seek a 'total' nature-based experience involving camping overnight and other outdoor activities (p37).

It is interesting that the Strategy makes this distinction, but then focuses on the handful of small operations which, ironically, do not have the resources nor industry presence to make a real difference to biodiversity conservation.

From the perspective of biodiversity conservation it makes little difference whether tourists come to be inspired by nature for an hour or a week. Furthermore, the same tourist who comes for a total immersion experience flies in the same aircraft, takes the same road, stays in the same accommodation and eats in the same restaurants as those that come to be inspired for an hour. The point is that, in this country where nature is the one main drawcard, all of tourism has a stake in biodiversity conservation.

1.5 Policy directions

Internationally, the broad objective of integrating development with the protection of species and ecosystems was emphasised by the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). In a significant step forward in international environment law, the International Convention on Biological Diversity, which came into force internationally on 29 December 1993, and to which Australia is party, explicitly integrates the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

In Australia, the goal of the Draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity is the protection of biological diversity and the maintenance of ecological processes (ANZECC Task Force on Biological Diversity 1993). The Draft National Strategy acknowledges the core objectives of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD) and accepts its guiding principles. The NSESD, in turn, is founded on the conservation of biodiversity, and guides government policy and decision making, particularly in those industry sectors that rely on the use of natural resources such as tourism.

The InterGovernmental Agreement on the Environment (1992) also considered the conservation of biological diversity to be a guiding principle of environment policy.

Integration of biodiversity conservation and tourism development has emerged as an important national objective, with strong support by government, industry and the community. The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (1992) addressed this relationship, noting that the central challenge is to:

develop and manage the tourism industry in a way which conserves its natural resource and built heritage base, and minimises any negative environmental, social and cultural impacts.

The National Ecotourism Strategy, developed by the Commonwealth Department of Tourism (1992), is aimed specifically at facilitating an integrated approach to the development of ecotourism in Australia. The Strategy states that these activities are to be planned so as to maintain and support the protection of biological diversity and the maintenance of ecological processes and systems.

The integration of biodiversity conservation and tourism development are also specifically addressed in the National Forest Policy Statement (1992), which aims to manage Australia's forests in an ecologically sustainable manner for a range of uses including tourism.

Section 2 provides further detail of the policies as they relate to biodiversity conservation and nature-based tourism.

1.6 Aims of study

The main aims of this study are:

1.7 Approach

Published and draft tourism, ecotourism, nature-based tourism, rural tourism, and forest tourism strategies, masterplans, and policies were obtained from the relevant departments in all States and Territories. Papers and publications on biodiversity conservation were likewise obtained. A literature search was conducted of several library databases, and information was provided by DEST. After review of the material, interviews were conducted with key personnel in all state and federal departments to identify any unsourced material, clarify any points of confusion, to gain an understanding of policy directions, strategic planning proposals and initiatives, to understand history of policy and strategy development, and determine some of the impediments, mistakes made and successes achieved in the process of development of the material.

Information on the status, needs and strategic thinking on biodiversity conservation was obtained from published and unpublished sources. Interviews were held with experts in the field of biodiversity conservation, and much of the thinking was translated into the document.

The economic side of our report covered several essential tasks. The first involved deriving a preliminary sketch of the backgrounds, habits, expenditure patterns and preferences of tourists, in an attempt to determine NBE demands and likely prospects for future development of the industry. Data on tourism were obtained from Commonwealth, State and Territory authorities, by interview and through published and unpublished material. Other studies of ecotourism were also consulted. Economic studies demonstrating the value of natural areas were then surveyed and their empirical findings summarised. Funding mechanisms were explored, drawing on the existing literature and practical examples. An assessment was undertaken of the potential for success of recommended strategies, based on detailed understanding of the industry's ability to accommodate the various proposals.

A preliminary draft of the report was circulated to various departments for comment. Review comments were incorporated where appropriate in the final document.

The final thinking, major findings, and recommendations were developed during this process, and reflect the views of the authors in the light of available information and the terms of reference for the project. Interpretations of data, errors and omissions are clearly the responsibility of the authors.