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

7. Role of industry

7.1 Tourism operations

The commercial basis and business structure of ecotourism has been identified in the paper prepared by the Victorian Department of Conservation and Environment, which observes that ecotourism:

For the 'sensitive' and 'contributory' providers of NBE, the business of tourism is not always, and in some instances rarely, a moneymaking venture. The per capita expenses of NBE trips are larger than high-volume or mass tourism trips because of the small group sizes, remoteness, additional equipment, expensive transportation, need for an expert or specialist guide and the cost of contributing towards the resource (where that occurs, see particularly sections 3.3 and 3.4). Tour operations are privately owned, and agencies are often run by the original founder. By and large, product decisions are based on personal preferences. Profit margins for the small operator are tight and the industry is very fragmented.

A directory of ecotourism operators has been compiled by Richardson (1993). The directory is not fully comprehensive and is not an objective assessment of the operators (the descriptions were provided by the operators themselves). Criteria for inclusion were based on self assessment of the company's credentials according to a pro forma questionnaire.

Since the term ecotourism came into force there has been a significant 'bandwagon' effect, with many small, medium and large companies calling some or all of their tours 'ecotours'. This is evident from the Natural Holiday Guide, and from such publications as the Western Australian Natural Holiday Guide and NT Holiday Planner and equivalents in other states. Analysis of the marketing hyperbole, and matching of the actual tours and credentials of guides reveals that much of this product does not necessarily fit the concept of ecotourism (see for example Finucane's 1993 study, and Forestry Tasmania 1994a,b). Nature based tourism is slightly less a catchphrase for the industry, and many more companies could legitimately claim to be 'nature based.' To overcome the problem of companies claiming to be ecotourism operators when they are not, the Northern Territory Tourist Commission introduced a form in 1994 which operators wishing to list as ecotourism operators in the NT Holiday Planner must sign. Among the declarations are that tours:

Having said this, the 'ecotourism industry' is really only confined to perhaps 60-80 small, mostly marginal, tour operators (Southern 1995, pers comm). We have discussed this in section 1.2 in more detailed reference to definitions of ecotourism and nature-based tourism. We have also found a backlash in the industry against use of the term 'ecotourism', a point discussed in section 1.2 also.

The definitions and criteria which have been developed for the CNR (1992) paper, and the abovementioned reports probably exclude many companies which could legitimately claim to provide ecotourism and nature tourism experiences. Examples include the Yellow Waters Cruise in Kakadu National Park, the Penguin Sanctuary at Port Phillip Bay, Kingfisher Bay Resort on Fraser Island, and Quicksilver Cruises to the outer Great Barrier Reef. Some or all of these large scale operations could be considered ecotourism, depending on the tour guide and the activity at the time. Each could certainly be considered nature-based tourism.

In considering the role of industry in biodiversity conservation, all segments of the nature-based and ecotourism industry should be addressed. The accommodation and transport sectors are intimately connected with these activities, as they are indeed for tourism in general.

It is recommended that any program that attempts to promote resourcing of biodiversity conservation should cover the entire tourism industry, including the transport and accommodation sectors.

7.2 Marketing

From a marketing perspective, NBE is about packaging a different product, to a different audience, with different results from that of mass tourism. By understanding the customers, their motivations and characteristics, decisionmakers can better create tourist packages, bring in more money, manage tourism impact and contribute to conservation of biodiversity.

The focus on biodiversity is evident in the Australian Tourism Commission's The Natural Holiday Guide which gave basic information on all of Australia's ten (now 12) World Heritage Areas including data on the numbers of plant, bird and reptile species. A special section on 'Wildlife Viewing' outlines the evolution of Australia's fauna, emphasising the fact that millions of years of isolation from other continents have produced a high percentage of endemic species. 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 Australian frogs, 89 per cent of reptiles, almost half of birds, and an unknown number of non-vascular plants and microorganisms (Mummery, Hardy et al., p7). The 'Wildlife Viewing' section provides details about Australia's birds, marsupials and monotremes, reptiles, whales, dolphins, dugongs, whale sharks, white pointer sharks and seals and sea lions.

Another example was the brochure Western Australian Nature Holidays compiled by the Western Australian Tourist Commission. Western Australia was advertised as having 'more than 10,000 species of plants, including unique wildflowers... more than 500 different birds' and 'a wide range of habitats from tropical rainforests, to deserts, to ancient coral reefs and with national parks in all these regions.'

Local operators who advertised in the brochure focused extensively on national parks, variety of flora and fauna and close encounters with specific animal species in their advertising. Some examples of the advertising slogans include the following:

Marketing for the major part of the industry is carried out by the individual companies through a system of retail travel agents and wholesale travel agents. Wholesale travel agents comprise inbound and outbound agents, that is, those selling domestic product and those selling overseas product, and dealing only with tour companies and retail travel agents. Retail agents usually fall into two categories, usually in the one business, one which sells domestic product and one which sells overseas travel, both direct to customers.

Inbound wholesale agents may deal direct with operators and sell product to overseas retail agents or wholesalers. Overseas wholesale agents may deal direct with Australian operators or with Inbound Agents. Commission levels vary usually from 10 per cent of the cost of packages or tours for retail agents up to 20 per cent for wholesale agents and 30 per cent or more for inbound or overseas wholesale agents.

Generally, domestic travel consultants prefer to sell products to their clients as quickly and easily as possible. There are a number of reasons for this. First, most travel consultants in Australia see domestic transactions only as a stepping stone on the ladder to becoming an international consultant. Secondly, domestic transactions are usually smaller than international ones and generally earn lower commissions. In many cases, the domestic consultants are quite inexperienced, not particularly well paid, and work hard to achieve ambitious sales figures. Domestic travel consultants are also more likely to recommend a product with which they are familiar or where there is easy access to current information, including tour descriptions, schedules, availability and costs. They are unlikely to search out anything new to offer their clients.

With respect to the suppliers of NBE, most tour operators are simply 'selling nature'. They are principally concerned with making a profit and they have identified a lucrative market. The minority of other nature based and ecotourism tour operators range from being 'sensitive' to conservation issues and they try to design their trips to be low impact; to tour operators who actually contribute a portion of their revenues toward biodiversity conservation or take an active role in conserving and improving the areas they visit. A handful fall into the latter category. It is difficult to determine what percentage of tour operators fall into each category, however, because it is difficult to separate marketing hyperbole from real actions.

It is common in tourism marketing to claim the superlative. At every trade fair and in much tourist promotional material, claims are made that the areas advertised have the most species, greatest diversity, oldest living cultures, unique ecosystems, and so on. These claims are often incorrect, even some made by scientific experts. The emphasis should be on the intrinsic and derivative values of particular areas. A desert is just as valuable as a rainforest even though it may have fewer species and less diversity.

It is recommended that marketing hyperbole be reviewed for the accuracy of its claims and that educational programs and material emphasise the value of each place in its own right and in its relationship with other places.

Some of the relevant marketing problems faced by 'sensitive' and 'contributory' providers of ecotourism products, associated with the financial constraints that they face, include the following:

It is recommended that small ecotourism operators, faced with limited marketing resources, yet providing high quality experiences, be assisted in their endeavours to reach larger markets. This could be achieved through industry cooperatives, support by tourism commissions and promotion by governments, particularly for the overseas market.

7.3 Research

Research is urgently needed into psychographic and more meaningful profiles of tourists as a whole, not specifically 'ecotourists', partly for marketing purposes but also to enable the industry to provide the kinds of experiences and services that people demand. Most of the data collected by the Bureau of Tourism Research, the Australian Tourism Commission and the Australian Bureau of Statistics relates to demographics, places visited, general expenditure and activities undertaken (only some identifiable as nature-based). The surveys typically do not ask about what people would like to experience while on tour and whether their expectations have been fulfilled after the tours. This problem has been recognised. The Bureau of Tourism Research, for example, will be including new questions in its surveys designed to elicit this kind of information (Barry Jones 1994, pers. comm.).

It is recommended that the Bureau of Tourism Research and the Australian Bureau of Statistics initiate studies of domestic and international visitor psychographic profiles and studies of expectations, desires and fulfilment.

Five key elements of research are identified in this report. They are:

  1. Research and development of a bioregional framework for Australia, as identified and discussed in Section 3.2, and integrated with the IBRA and the IMCRA developments.
  2. Through IBRA and IMCRA, and other means, identify deficiencies in the representative reserve system in Australia (Sn. 3.2).
  3. Use models similar to the James Cook University integrated tourism planning models to integrate biodiversity conservation and NBE, and to develop 'personalities' for regions. This is discussed in section 3.5.
  4. Through research proposed in points 1 to 3, research and develop CD ROM technology as discussed in section 3.5.
  5. Integrate research on ecology and visitor profiles with economic models for the valuation of natural areas and the structural development of regions.

Research must also be improved into the management of protected areas, aimed particularly at increasing the understanding of the impact of human activity on biodiversity and ways of ensuring sustainability of the Australian environment. This is tempered by Walton et al. (1992c) who have stated that:

In the face of rapid and great change, research is not enough; active management is essential. What is known must be implemented, what is suspected must be tried and evaluated, and what we need to know determined.

We endorse their views, and would add that it is, in our view, a relatively clear path to implement much of the currently available information, yet implementation is almost entirely deficient in Australian tourism.

7.4 Education

Education is a crucial ingredient in strategies for integrating biodiversity conservation and NBE. Tourism operators probably educate more people about natural aspects of Australia than all school teachers and university lecturers. One of the most obvious deficiencies at present is the level of education and communication skills of ecotourism operators. The range of expertise varies enormously. Misinformation on biodiversity, ecology and management is common in the industry. This often has a detrimental effect on the tourism trade since many of the tourists travelling on ecotours are well-educated and may be alienated by deficient information and commentary.

A less obvious problem is the relatively poor understanding of biodiversity conservation and ecotourism by land managers and field staff from government agencies.

Programs of professional training and updating are needed, for travel agents, tourism operators and field staff (including natural area managers), to counter this problem. Some of the key areas that need to be addressed include:

These areas are best handled in training workshops conducted by national parks and other land management authorities. They can be supplemented by a wide range of accessible and easily understood literature, films, videos, and computerised information systems. Costs for such courses should be kept within reasonable limits.

Models already exist for such training courses. They include courses given by the Victorian Tourist Operators Association and the Victorian Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; courses delivered by the Australian Nature Conservation Agency; and other courses available through TAFEs and universities throughout Australia. Such courses could be mounted in association with accreditation processes for tourism operators. 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.).

It is recommended that educational programs covering the basics of environmental science and ecology be a component of training and accreditation procedures for travel agents, tour operators and field staff.

7.5 Accreditation

Accreditation in the tourism industry has been the subject of intense debate in Australia and overseas for at least a decade but over the past four to six years has taken a much higher profile. The Inbound Tour Organisation of Australia (ITOA) introduced a Guide Accreditation Scheme in 1992 for Australian tour guides. It is a voluntary scheme based on a Canadian system. The scheme began with a 'grandfather' clause which allowed existing tour operators to gain accreditation by proof of their experience in tour operation. No qualifications were required. The 'grandfather' clause terminated in June 1993 (ITOA News December 1992). Future aspirants to Accreditation are required to undertake a series of courses specified by ITOA.

Accreditation can take many forms. The accreditation of operators by the Victorian Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in conjunction with VTOA requires operators to meet a set of agreed criteria, and accredited operators are the only ones who can be licensed to operate in public lands.

Several other schemes have been developed or are in the process of development. All State and regional tourism organisations appear to have 'Codes of Conduct' for operators. Some are comprehensive and give specific guidelines.

The National Ecotourism Strategy lists some 20 alternative accreditation systems that may be relevant to ecotourism. The Code of Practice developed for operators by the Ecotourism Association of Australia in 1991 recommends that operators 'strengthen the conservation effort' but was not specific on how this should be achieved.

The Australian Tourism Industry Association's Code of Environmental Practice (1990) was more detailed, with its stated aim 'to protect and preserve existing habitat, flora and fauna and natural and cultural areas' and contribute towards the protection and management of those irreplaceable segments of the natural and created environment on which the tourism industry relies.' Other practices are designed 'to ensure that natural ecosystems are not used beyond their sustainable capability by the activities of the tourism industry.'

Two significant developments have occurred recently in the national and international tourism arenas. The World Tourism and Travel Council, formed in 1990, has produced 'comprehensive Environmental Guidelines for Travel and Tourism companies' released in 1991. These have developed into the Green Globe concept which was billed as 'A Worldwide Environmental Program for the Travel and Tourist Industry'. Launched in 1993, the Green Globe concept encouraged corporate commitment to environmental sustainability and increased traveller awareness. It stated that environmental programs should be 'sensitive to conservation of environmentally protected or threatened areas, species and scenic aesthetics'. The Green Globe was subject to annual review and could be revoked from companies that fail to demonstrate continuing environmental commitment.

A further development towards accreditation is the Pacific Asia Travel Association's Green Leaf program for 1995. This scheme urges companies to commit themselves to best environmental practice. Of specific relevance to biodiversity conservation is the requirement that companies should 'contribute to the conservation of any habitat of flora and fauna, and of any site whether natural or cultural, which may be affected by tourism'. Other clauses promote environmental philosophy in tourism.

An investigation into a National Ecotourism Accreditation Scheme was developed by consultants for the Commonwealth Department of Tourism. A summary report has been produced and was presented at the 1994 World Adventure Travel and Ecotourism Congress in Hobart. The initial response to the report was mixed, and the development of an effective scheme may take some time. There appear to be no specific references to biodiversity conservation in the investigation report, and we have observed that there is considerable industry reluctance to adopt the scheme as it stands.

7.6 Contributions by industry to biodiversity conservation

Industry can contribute to biodiversity conservation in a number of ways, some involving a financial input and others involving in-kind inputs of various kinds.

Section 4.11 of the report has examined empirical evidence of the value of natural areas. One conclusion that can be reached from this assessment is that, while tourism generates hundreds of millions of dollars from famous national parks and other protected areas, expenditure on management is usually only a small percentage of the revenue generated. There are strong moral reasons and economic efficiency arguments for arguing that the industry should contribute some of these gains to support its resource base – that is, protection and management of the natural systems on which it depends.

Economic instruments applied to the industry can generate funding support. Protected areas can generate revenues from nature tourism through entrance fees, donations, ancillary services, or products, and private investment. Whether biodiversity benefits from these mechanisms depends on how much money is raised and who receives it. These matters are discussed in greater detail in Section 8.6.

In-kind contributions by industry may consist of direct participation in conservation management, monitoring and research; educating clients and the general public; and collaborating with government and the community in strategic planning and management.

Figgis (1994) gives an example which demonstrates the value of tourism in nature conservation management. The Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers markets landcare and conservation packages through its Echidna Package Program. The Trust provides volunteers for conservation projects on both public and private lands. During 19931994 the scheme contributed 22,664 working days for projects such as the collection of native seeds in Tasmania's wild river catchments, the conduct of animal surveys in the ACT and the construction of walking tracks on Magnetic Island.

Many Victorian Parks, such as Mt Buffalo, profit from the management input of 'Friends' groups – visitors who form an attachment to the park, and undertake voluntary management tasks.

Further examples, described in the next Section, indicate how ecotourism can contribute to ecosystem research and management.

7.7 Examples of tourism operations

There is no 'typical' model for successful ecotourism development in all its facets. Rather, examples can be given from different projects in which particular components are innovative or well implemented.

Overseas, donations have been a rich source of revenues for parks management and local environmental Non-Government Organisations. Donations can range from individual onsite contributions, to tour operator revenue sharing schemes, to fundraising events during tours. In Costa Rica, the Monteverde Conservation League was able to expand their reserve by 8000 hectares through donations (Ziffer et al. 1989). In the Galapagos, the Charles Darwin Research Station took an active approach and mailed a fundraising appeal to the visitors who had signed their log book, raising $150,000.

Several examples can be cited where ecotourism has contributed to research. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has introduced an Environmental Maintenance Charge of $1 per person per day for commercial operators. The revenue yield is expected to be approximately $1.3 M in the first year. Most of the funding will be allocated to a Cooperative Research Centre dedicated to the ecologically sustainable management of the Reef, with a particular emphasis on managing visitor impacts (Figgis 1994).

EarthWatch, a worldwide organisation which originated in the United States, has succeeded in integrating research and tourism. Researchers identify an area of scientific research which could be assisted by a group of enthusiastic volunteers and the project is 'packaged' and sold to tourists. In return for their labour, tourists have access to a research team which provides information, enjoying an experience quite different from that offered by mainstream tourism. Figgis (1994) noted that one of the projects supported by EarthWatch was Little Desert Tours in Western Victoria where tourism was built around research efforts of the owners working with scientists. The owners were involved in the protracted battle for the Little Desert's protection and bought the 240ha property in 1973 to protect part of the environment. The property drew approximately 12,000 visitors each year (at 1994) who would get involved with the range of ecological projects taking place on or near the property.

Discovery Ecotours, based in the Northern Territory, runs trips which also support ecological research. The company, owned by ecologists, has supported more than 40 research projects throughout Australia. Tours frequently carry a research scientist or meet teams of scientists in the field. The scientists use the labour of paying guests (though there is no obligation to 'work') to conduct further research while also acting as a guide. In some notable examples (Gulf of Carpentaria and the remote islands of Eastern Indonesia) the tours have been designed to allow scientists to obtain access to remote areas at low cost, and the company has been instrumental in significant scientific discoveries including internationally recognised breeding grounds for Green and Olive Ridley Turtles, new genera of fossil fish, new Families of arboreal mammals from the Miocene, and regionally significant sea bird rookeries.

The model established by Discovery Ecotours was successfully adopted by Landscope Expeditions, a cooperative venture between the Western Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management and the University of Western Australia. Tours are diverse and operate in many areas of the state. They all link in with scientific research, and their intention is to assist in the funding of the scientific research projects.

Data and other research results gathered from activities such as these could serve as inputs to a National Monitoring Program supporting strategic planning, assessment of the impacts of tourism on the environment and formulation of preventive and remedial management practices.

Innovative and well implemented projects, even if small scale, can contribute significantly to biodiversity research and conservation.

It is recommended that a compendium of successful models be prepared so that operators and agents can be made aware of the range of initiatives that have been carried out. One incentive that governments could introduce is tax deductibility for such initiatives.

7.8 Needs of the tourism industry

The needs of the industry can be divided into two broad classes: the requirements for policy and planning; and requirements for natural resource protection and site management.

Federal, State and Territory Governments have developed policies and strategies that confirm political support for NBE. Although all plans and policies purport to be based on the concept of ecologically sustainable tourism, the practice varies from State to State. The industry needs tangible guidelines on the meaning of ESD in the context of tourism as well as a clear explanation of policy instruments and administrative procedures.

In short, the industry needs incentives to contribute to the sustainability of its resource base. Altruism and philanthropy are commendable in an ideal world but are unlikely to govern the operation of most commercial enterprises.

To be successful, policy requirements to induce contributions to the conservation of biodiversity should be driven largely by economic incentives and strategies. They include:

Industry needs at the resource management level are extensive. The growth of tourism is placing increasing demands on the natural resources of the continent and the wide open spaces and seemingly endless choices for new venues are diminishing rapidly. Each year, special places which only a year or two previously provided visitors with unique experiences, are no longer open to the select few, but are now accessible by large numbers of people. Planners and managers have responded to the apparent needs of the industry but in doing so have destroyed or degraded the natural attributes by improving access and facilities.

The problem is not new, but it is notoriously difficult to overcome. There is a need to recognise the importance of nature-based tourism and a requirement for some areas to remain in low intensity use. The limits should be set before exploitation of areas begins, and not relaxed as visitor numbers increase over time. The value of undisturbed natural areas should be recognised and absorbed into planning and management, since many tourists do not enjoy visiting places together with large numbers of people.

The natural resource needs of the industry can thus be summarised as: