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

Executive summary

Tourism is one of Australia's fastest growing industries. It is a major source of foreign exchange, gross domestic product, income and employment; in 1991-92 tourism expenditure amounted to an estimated $26.2 billion, equivalent to 5.5 per cent of GDP. During the last decade, a trend emerged world wide for nature-based tourism and ecotourism. This study reveals that Australia's tourism industry is a major user of biological resources. In addition to nature-based and ecotourism in Australia, many aspects of tourism, through both marketing and actual experience, are dependent on Australia's natural environment. The health of Australia's biodiversity will be a major factor in determining the expansion of the tourism industry. In turn, the tourism industry can be a major force in the conservation of Australia biodiversity.

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 the 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 eco-tourism industry. It presents a national approach to formulating and implementing strategic plans to enable this integration.

The need for an integrated approach, based on regional planning for biodiversity conservation and the development of tourism, has been recognised in a number of important policy documents, including the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, the Final Reports of the ESD Working Groups (in particular Tourism), the National Ecotourism Strategy, the National Rural Tourism Strategy and the draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity.

All States and Territories have produced policy documents on ecotourism or tourism, and have assessed the state of their environment in relation to biodiversity conservation to some degree. They generally recognise the fundamental importance of natural resources to tourism. Some have also recognised that tourism based activities have a basic requirement to channel some of the revenue gained from using natural resources into the management and sustenance of those natural resources.

While the policy and administrative mechanisms for placing values on the use of natural resources are mostly in place, the challenge will be to design and implement systems that will link the growth of tourism with biodiversity conservation.

The approach recommended in this report is based on the relationship between nature-based tourism and ecotourism, and tourism generally, and the identification and management of key bioregions throughout Australia. The report argues for a detailed assessment of the ecological characteristics and natural features that attract tourists to special areas.

In meeting this challenge, the report finds that too much debate has revolved about the term 'ecotourism'. We argue for a more flexible approach to the interrelationships between tourism and biodiversity conservation. This approach will necessarily embrace many different aspects of the tourism industry, not just nature-based tourism and ecotourism (NBE), therefore providing many different levels of experience of nature and traditional culture. Our reference to 'NBE' throughout this report implies this broader view.

Profiles and preferences of tourists are not well analysed nor understood at this point in time. Although some initiatives have been commenced, better information is needed on tourists' desires, expectations and needs. More precise information is needed on tourist activity and fulfilment, across the tourism spectrum.

The links between the tourism trade and the need for environmental management in key bioregions can be analysed in terms of benefit-cost studies and regional economic models. The report presents abundant evidence to demonstrate the economic value of natural areas to tourism, and the regional implications for employment, investment and income.

There is a need for industry and governments to improve the marketing and conduct of the tourism trade as it relates to Australia's natural resources, and for the tourism industry to be better informed about its environmental responsibilities.

One of the major impediments to more effective protection of biodiversity is a lack of funds for research and management purposes. The report notes a wide range of funding mechanisms and economic instruments that could be introduced to support biodiversity programs.

Tourism is often used as a political, economic and social justification for reservation and retention of areas of natural habitat, but this is usually an ad hoc process, reflecting the politics of the day.

This report proposes mechanisms whereby tourism can be an effective force in the conservation of biodiversity, both for the benefit of the industry and for the intrinsic and economic values of biodiversity. Recognising that a large proportion of tourism depends directly on natural resources, and that much is focused on protected areas, tourism is identified as a key industry sector which has a legitimate right and an obligation to contribute to the debate about, policy formulation for, and implementation of biodiversity conservation measures.

This report recognises that all of tourism must be ecologically sustainable, and that, for this to be successful, it must contribute to the long-term maintenance of ecosystems and species. Simply to 'minimise impacts' is not enough since, with tourism growth, this will result in incremental damage and inevitable environmental deterioration. There can be no net environmental deterioration if the industry is to be ecologically sustainable. Active management which requires resources is needed in all situations. Tourism has a significant responsibility to contribute to the management of the natural resources on which it is dependent.

The ecologically sustainable development (ESD) process must be revitalised through the accelerated implementation of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development. It has advanced considerably Australia's commitment to become ecologically sustainable, and the ESD process has the support of all major industry sectors, including tourism. Industry support was an achievement in itself.

Summary recommendations and major findings

A large and significant proportion of tourism in Australia is based on aspects of the natural environment, focusing particularly on biological diversity – the plants, animals, ecosystems and natural landscapes of Australia (Section 4). Indeed, Australia's environment has been identified as perhaps the key drawcard for international visitors. The onus of environmental responsibility, however, seems mainly to have fallen on the nature based and particularly the ecotourism segments, the latter a narrowly defined and uncritically accepted subset of nature-based tourism which, ironically, does not have the resources nor industry presence to make a real difference to biodiversity conservation.

In general, there is much naivety among policy makers, planners and natural resource managers about what ecotourism can do. This is not to say that the many principles and strategies developed for ecotourism are not sound, rather that the focus of those principles and strategies should seek to embrace the broader industry.

Three major mechanisms for integrating biodiversity conservation and ecotourism and nature-based tourism were explored and developed in this study:

  1. bioregional planning approach – bioregional planning
    • identification and reservation of new areas
    • CD-ROM (and related) technology based on bioregional planning tools developed for use by the tourism industry
  2. funding mechanisms
  3. tourism industry involvement in strategic policy development for use of natural resources

They are based on the observation and principle that all of tourism has a stake in the conservation of biodiversity. We consider that these three mechanisms have strong potential to achieve the goals of conservation of biodiversity and provide the necessary resources for tourism to maintain ecologically sustainable growth into the future.

This approach is founded on a national system of bioregions (detailed in Section 3.2) which provide the appropriate scale to integrate reserve and off-reserve biodiversity conservation measures with tourism.

Since NBE is almost totally dependent on Australia's protected area system (Section 3.3), and each national park and World Heritage Area that comes 'on-line' becomes a brand name for tourism, the NBE industry needs to be involved at every level of bioregional planning and biodiversity conservation.

The tourism industry can look after its own best interests and support biodiversity conservation by actively supporting acquisitions of representative land through tourism policies, masterplans, and regional plans. In effect, more national parks mean more tourism opportunities. The Northern Territory Tourism Masterplan, for instance, is an example of how the NT tourism industry and the NT Conservation Commission are working together in this way.

This approach, in turn, lends muscle to the primary challenge for biodiversity conservation in Australia which is the development of a representative reserve system based on regional biodiversity (Section 3.3), supported by a comprehensive system of biodiversity conservation on private lands (Section 3.4). While the main thrust of biodiversity conservation is through a system of national parks and conservation reserves, the key to its success is through conservation on other lands, since about 70 per cent of Australia's land area is under the control of private landholders and resource managers (Bridgewater et al. 1992). There is significant and growing interest in conservation on private land (section 3.4) through, amongst other mechanisms, conservation covenants. In the tourism industry there is an increasing trend towards NBE operation on private land.

This report recommends a two-way approach to integrating trends in biodiversity conservation and tourism on private land. The approach is based on a suite of conservation and tourism incentives tied to conservation covenants. The incentives might include financial assistance for rehabilitation, technical assistance, and business assistance for marketing and NBE enterprise, part of the proceeds of which would go back into managing and monitoring the private reserves. Monitoring of environmental impacts and visitor attitudes would also be encouraged and fed back into information systems for analysis of trends.

The mechanisms for integrating biodiversity conservation and NBE have ramifications which extend to information systems, education, marketing, and the approach to bioregional planning. According to Pressey and others (various dates), in any region there is a variety of options in the creation of a system of reserves (private or public) which will satisfy the objective of regional biodiversity conservation. If the scheme outlined above is to be effective, then the tourism industry needs to be involved even at the conceptual stages of bioregional planning and of allocating resources.

With respect to information systems, one could envisage a network of complementary Geographic Information Systems which integrate conservation planning with databases on tourist desires, movements, and impacts. A system like this is being developed at James Cook University. Such an information system would, amongst other things, identify the 'personality' of a region and be used in the development of consumer CD-ROMs (and related technology) which allow people to choose interactively the holiday experience they desire in any bioregion, with or without the assistance of agents. Such a comprehensive system would allow the consumer or travel agent to access every available experience a region offers. This would be far superior to the current central reservation system which is biased towards easy to sell, high frequency tours that offer best economic returns and requires little knowledge of the product. A bioregional reservation system would also help educate travel agents on the features of a region.

Such an extensive information and product base founded on bioregions would be a major asset to tourism and would also stimulate regional economic development.

Economic analyses are crucial to the approach outlined above since they can demonstrate the value that the community, and tourists in particular, place on the conservation of natural areas and ecosystems. Our report documents a number of studies that yield convincing evidence of such values, using tourism expenditure data and benefit-cost analysis. These studies provide estimates which when combined show that, every year, the Great Barrier Reef, the Wet Tropics of Queensland, Kakadu, Uluru Kata Tjuta and Kosciusko National Parks and the Tasmanian wilderness alone generate in excess of $2 billion per year from tourism.

Economics can provide planning models that can be used to guide the development of regions, based on an expansion of NBE tourism. Various kinds of models are available. Our report specifically recommends the use of multi-sectoral models to assist the planning process. Such models are capable of predicting the direct and indirect effects of tourism expenditure on economic activities within a region and help determine the optimal sequence of development, including the provision of infrastructure and other supporting services.

Finally, economics can be used to assess the possibilities for, and benefits of, various mechanisms that are capable of mobilising funds to assist the functions of the tourism sector, management of conservation areas and ongoing education, training and research that are essential to the future sustainability of the industry and to the environment itself. Such mechanisms range from voluntary schemes promoted by the general community and industry to those introduced by government.