Ecotourism An Australian Perspective

by John Sinclair GO BUSH Safaris

I should begin by saying that while my ecotourism experience in Australia may seem so different to what is being sought in Thailand, it may have relevance in that when I began in Australia, over 30 years ago, ecotourism was in its infancy as it is now in your area.

I began running ecotours in Australia in 1967 before the term had been invented. Since the term "ecotourism" was invented it used in so many different ways that it is now unrecognizable.

Criteria Rather than Definition: Because there is now universally accepted definitions of ecotourism I have tried to define some criteria which are essential to ecotourism.

1. Ecotourism should help people to understand and appreciate the environment;

2. Ecotourism should help people to appreciate and enhance the understanding of other cultures;

3. Ecotourism should enable people to do more than just observe it should actively involve people in the subjects being explored and encourage them to follow it up;

4. Ecotourism must aim at minimizing environmental and social impacts and ensuring that it is sustainable;

5. It should benefit the environment the regional economy and the local communities.

6. It should be educational and enhance both the ecotourists' experiences and their appreciation of the environment and regional cultures without assuming any value judgements.

Focussing on the interactions of humans with the environment leads to both a greater appreciation of the need for the environment and for traditional cultures which have demonstrated sustainability. If all of these criteria are not met then what is being practiced is another form of inferior tourism which is pirating the term for private profit rather than for the public interest.

Such refinements did not exist when I began running safaris over 30 years ago. In 1970 Fraser Island had just 10,000 visitors each year. It now has more than 300,000 visitors.

NGOs began ecotourism in Australia

At first I wanted to show people who were sympathetic to the environment the issues which needed special conservation efforts. These trips enabled NGO members to become more informed about the issues and more active in helping to protect the areas they had been shown.

I expanded from day tours to longer camping tours in 1971 when I formed the Fraser Island Defenders Organization to protect a World Heritage island near my home town in Queensland. For FIDO, ecotours became not only a significant way of gathering and disseminating information about the area we were trying to save but it became the largest source income for the organization for 15 years until I moved to Sydney in 1986.

While at first all of the safaris I lead were to Fraser Island we gradually branched out to include other areas such as the Great Barrier Reef and other places which are now World Heritage areas.

In 1986 I began to explore ways of combining my professional background in informal education with my personal interest in protecting the environment. Thus it was that in 1988 Sharan and I formed GO BUSH Safaris .

Ecotourism has enabled me to explore and monitor the changes to the environment over a much wider geographic area. We now conduct safaris to areas more than 4,500 kilometres apart and straddling the whole of the Australian continent as you will see by a reference to the map in the back of the GO BUSH Safaris catalogue.

Ecotourism enables people to experience Australia's unique nature in a sustainable way. It helps people to better understand the environment and to be more enthusiastic about protecting it.

It has been the fastest growing sector of Australia's largest industry. It has grown at a much faster rate than any other sector of the tourist industry in the last 10 years but from a very small base.

Australia's natural environment holds a world wide fascination with strange and harmless animals like koalas and kangaroos but so far relatively few people who have sought good ecotourism experiences have been satisfied.

Thai and Australian Experiences in Common

Although there are many differences between Thai and Australian ecotourism experiences they have several things in common:

* The demand for ecotourism is strongest in the wildest or most remote places in both places where there are few developed facilities to enable visitors to reach without some professional assistance;

* In Australia there are very few people live in areas ecotourists want to visit and there is little accommodation and so in many places people can only visit them if they camp. In the hill tribe area likewise there currently exists only very basic and limited facilities to cater for ecotourists.

* Ecotourists are prepared to suffer many temporary discomforts to gain rich experience and better cultural understanding. They can cope with primitive amenities such as a lack of electricity as long as they remain warm dry and well fed and can have a good wash at least every second day.

* Ecotourists though want to a basic standard of cleanliness and hygiene and they want to be well kept fully informed not just about what is happening now and about to happen but about what they can expect over the whole period..

The Information Flow

GO BUSH Safaris begins the information flow with the publication of its brochure. These are deliberately not glossy but simple and as inexpensive as we can make them. We print 60,000 of these and place them in various conservation magazines. About half our advertising expenditure goes to conservation bodies. This gives a brief summary of each trip being offered, the dates the trips are being conducted and the cities they start and finish from as well as the price. If people are interested they tear off the coupon and post the coupon to us free.

The next stage is that we send them a catalogue with a detailed day by day itinerary explaining what each safari will cover and the guides. Inside the Catalogue is also a set of the objectives of GO BUSH Safaris emphasizing our strong conservation and cultural bias. It also tells them a bit more of the background of the type of operation, the numbers and type of person they can expect to be sharing the trip with. If a person accepts this as being their choice then they complete the Application Form and send it with a deposit to us. The information supplied to the applicants on the Application Form is also relevant to the information flow.

Once we have the Application and deposit we immediately send them a Handbook to further inform and prepare them for the trip.

About 6 to 8 weeks before each trip we then send the safarists a further package with a lot of detailed information about the places they will be visiting including the history, geology, ecological notes and more detailed information about the particular accommodation we will be using each night as well as where they will be met.

Finally in addition to all of this and the announcements during each day, at the end of each safari we send to all participants a diary which they have all helped collectively compile on my laptop computer during the safari. This is desktop published and helps consolidate and preserve their memories of their experience.

This information flow may seem excessive but ecotourists expect to be kept well informed. It is that hunger to be better informed which differentiates the ecotourism from other tourists and makes them so motivated to act upon what they see.

The Pace of Ecotourism

Ecotourists do not want to be rushed. They are the complete opposite to the 20 minute tourists. They want sufficient time at any destination to immerse themselves in the environment, to savour the atmosphere, to smell the fragrances, hear the subtle sounds and to observe the many minute details of their surrounds. A quick cursory look around in a large group does not allow this experience.

It is therefore important not to crowd too many activities which take such time to absorb into one day. My experience is that it is better to include fewer sites with more quality time at each than to try to crowd too many destinations into any single day.

The Process of Ecotourism

In helping people to understand and appreciate their environment it should be appreciated that while everybody is likely to be interested not everybody will be expert. Nobody expects to become instant experts but they all want to expand their understanding.

Good leaders will soon explore the collective knowledge within groups. For example, some members may be expert bird watchers but not know too much about botany. Others may be the reverse. These people help to fill in the gaps in each other's knowledge in mutual exchange. I have had expert geologists who have helped the whole group to understand more about the rocks and soil. Another person with a special interest in volcanoes added a lot to everyone else's knowledge on this topic.

Spreading the benefits of ecotourism

I try to assist local communities and conservation in several ways. For example, I try to direct as much of the advertising budget to supporting non-government organizations. I shop locally.

I engage additional guides and local operators to add local expertise. While I am happy to claim to be an expert on Fraser Island, I do not claim such expertise on the Kimberley so I take an additional guide who is an expert naturalist. I also pay other local experts and tour operators to do segments of a safari including flights or boat trips. A local farmer to take our group on a tour to provide a different perspective.

Where possible I include more Aboriginal participation, probably more than any other ecotour operator in Australia. We try to become involved in assisting the local Aboriginal community. We also provide personal and strategy advice to many Aboriginal leaders. We helped one community sell some of its art and crafts.

We also assist some special NGO conservation projects in a variety ways by meeting costs which those organizations might otherwise have to pay such as telephone, fax, computer, photocopying and postage. It is not a small item. We have also gone into publishing to advance some book projects which would have otherwise languished.

Some benefits of experience

Because I have been leading safaris for so long I have learnt to a number of valuable lessons. We refuse to deal through agents. By eliminating agents we avoid both attracting clients who don't fit and paying a commission.

I only try to attract a clientele that I can comfortably live with for the duration of the safari. Having compatibility in the group is essential. That cannot happen if as leader I find it hard to like the clients. Therefore we try to discourage anyone who is unlikely to fit in. Our policy of explaining our objectives clearly and openly ensures that we almost always have compatible happy and friendly groups. In 30 years of leading safaris I have only had 15 people travel with me who we wished had stayed at home.

Conclusion

Ecotourism is often preached about but rarely properly practiced in any country. Australia is no exception. Too many people find that it is too difficult and start taking short-cuts and reduce the value of the experience.

It needs constant monitoring and clear objectives to ensure that we do not lose sight of what we set out to achieve. It also needs monitoring to see that it does not overwhelm you. Instead of being something which helps your villages become a little more prosperous, it might become something which ends up taking over and running your village.

30 years ago ecotourism in Australia was in its infancy. On Fraser Island it has grown in 30 years to be over 30 times bigger than when I started. It has been a similar story in most other parts of Australia which are of particular interest to ecotourists because of their natural or cultural richness.

In the hill tribe area ecotourism is in its infancy. As with a child it is important to set the standards and to teach it how to behave because that sets the pattern for the rest of its life. It is good that here HADF has taken an initiative to examine what sort of ecotourism should be established before it grows out of control.

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