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Feature Article - Ecotourism in Tasmania
About a third of Tasmania is protected in forest and marine reserves, 19 National Parks, and a World Heritage Area listed in 1982 and later extended to its current size of 1.38m hectares, which is about 20% of Tasmania. It is no surprise that the State’s current ecotourism strength and most of its resources lie in nature-based and related product, including adventure and independent travel.
The importance of the State’s natural assets was recognised by pioneers such as Gustav Weindorfer, who first bushwalked in the Cradle Mountain area in 1909 and within 3 years had established a chalet as a base for walkers in what was to become the internationally significant Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park.
One of the first to identify the value of ecotourism was Eric Sargent, the founder of one of Australia’s first adventure tourism operations. A keen bushwalker, he saw the potential for commercial trekking tours as early as the 1950s but it was 1968 before he was in a position to establish Craclair Tours, taking visitors on expeditions tailored to suit the fragile Tasmanian wilderness.
Tourism initiatives embracing the specific characteristics of ecotourism began to emerge in the mid-1980s with the introduction of a private walking enterprise on the Overland Track in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. The venture highlighted conservation values and energy efficiency and was a watershed in commercial use of public lands. It has led to other developments, including two East Coast guided walks that feature eco-friendly accommodation.
New operators are beginning to place emphasis on conservation values, such as a Bruny Island tourism venture run by a biologist who has centred her tours around the conservation and scientific values of her property. On the East Coast, a penguin habitat was saved and its penguin population has increased due to the work of a wildlife operator who has given a priority to conservation values as part of developing his business.
In the past five years, a greater range of soft and hard adventure experiences have been developed and the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service has further developed park infrastructure and management capacities. This has included the establishment of major visitor centres at Mt Field National Park, Hastings Caves State Reserve and Freycinet National Park. During the same period, there has been substantial investment in interpretation facilities and services.
The Tahune AirWalk, which features a walkway in the forest canopy and a visitor centre, opened in mid-2001 in the southern forests. It is a prime example of the use of a forest reserve in tourism. It is the first time that Forestry Tasmania has shifted from providing community facilities in its reserves to the establishment of a commercial operation, developed in partnership with the local council and community. The AirWalk has achieved monthly visitation figures of up to 10,000 people.
Mounting interest in nature-based and ecotourism saw Tasmania host the World Congress on Adventure Travel and Ecotourism in 1994, as well as the international Sustainable Wildlife Conference held in conjunction with the World Tourism Convention in 2001.
Tasmania has set two tourism growth targets under its joint industry-State Government business plan, Tourism 21. The targets are $1,000m in visitor expenditure and 26,000 tourism jobs, both by 2007.
An analysis of potential growth areas has identified potential for Tasmania’s ecotourism and nature-based sector to make a substantial contribution to these targets.
The Centre for Regional Economic Analysis in 2000 reported that parks and wildlife tourism alone generates between 3,550 and 4,200 jobs in Tasmania. It is estimated that this sector of tourism accounted for between $104.8m and $126.2m in Gross State Product in Tasmania in 1998-99.
A report prepared by Tourism Tasmania, Nature-based Tourism in Tasmania - 1998-99 Update, calculated that 69% of visitors to Tasmania participated in nature-based tourism, with the figure much higher for international visitors at 86%.
Tasmanian Visitor Survey statistics for 2000-01 show that 83% of all holiday visitors to Tasmania visit at least one National Park, while 53% engage in wildlife viewing. Of those who participate in bushwalking, 52% walk for less than two hours, 29% walk for two hours to a full day and 6% undertake a walk that is overnight or longer.
According to the survey, the most popular natural attractions for holiday visitors in 2000-01 were Cradle Mountain (43%), Lake St Clair/Derwent Bridge (37%), Freycinet National Park (37%) and the Gordon River/Franklin River (33%).
Policy development has stepped up in the past decade and Tasmania was the first State to introduce a whole-of-government approach to managing natural resources, establishing a working party for recreational tourism use of State-owned land. The working party, set up in the early 1990s, assisted with the development of recreational vehicle use in natural areas as well as policies for nature-related State Government agencies.
As a result, Tasmania developed Australia’s first integrated plan for walking tracks in 1997, entitled Tasmanian Walking Track Strategy and Marketing Plan. The strategy is helping to ensure that Tasmania remains one of the world’s best walking destinations, with its 3,000 kilometres of walking tracks.
The State currently has 1,700 tourism businesses and of the total, about 250 are ecotourism and nature-based operators.
Tasmania is in a sound position to advance its nature-based tourism sector, with significant growth in participation by the international market an important trend.
Independent research during the last decade has shown consistently that nature and wilderness are a core element in Tasmania’s appeal as a holiday destination. Research also strongly demonstrates that the competitive advantage for Tasmania lies in its blend of nature with the two other prime areas of visitor interest: history and heritage, and food and wine.
To support growth in the ecotourism sector, Tourism Tasmania is currently developing an integrated natural and cultural heritage tourism strategy as a platform for further development of ecotourism and the main elements of visitor experiences offered by the sector.
Areas of potential for the sector include a demand for a wider range of integrated experiences, such as combining rafting and walking, fishing and wildlife, or nature-based activities with food and wine experiences, to provide visitors with a greater breadth of experiences.
Tasmania is likely to see further development of specialised and niche ventures, such as wildlife experiences, as well as new soft and hard adventure products. Other new products are also likely to include opportunities for travellers to participate in environmental research or science projects as part of a holiday.
At the same time, there is a need to ensure that the interpretive aspect of ecotourism products is strengthened, with further investment required in the training of ecoguides to ensure that high-level skills provide visitors with enriching experiences and a greater appreciation of Tasmania’s natural values.
The next phase of industry development for the sector will call for active involvement of the industry and its resources in conservation and land management, in partnership with land management agencies.
Continuing recognition of the need to ensure a sustainable approach to development of ecotourism is vital to ensuring that it provides economic, environmental and social outcomes for Tasmania.
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