Beauty rich and rare, yet shy of showing off

Australia has no shortage of natural gifts but has fallen behind the rest of the world in knowing how to make the most of them. That could be about to change.

WHEN you live in a country with so many natural riches, it is disappointing to hear it is no longer considered a leader in ecotourism.

Some of the world's experts on nature-based tourism are gathering in Noosa, Queensland, for a conference and their assessment of what we have to offer is not flattering.

The founder of adventure tour operator Gap Adventures, Bruce Poon Tip, says Australia "pales in comparison" to countries such as New Zealand and Costa Rica, which have had a strong and consistent message on ecotourism.

Poon Tip, who is a keynote speaker at the Global Eco Asia-Pacific Tourism conference, which starts tomorrow, says few countries can match Australia's ecotourism assets, yet it continues to reach for the "lower-hanging fruit" of mass tourism.

Conference convener Tony Charters says Australia was a pioneer of ecotourism in the early 1990s but has fallen well behind other parts of the world.

Charters, an international ecotourism consultant based in Brisbane, says Australia was the second country in the world to set up an ecotourism body (Ecotourism Australia) and its ecotourism accreditation scheme was the first in the world. The scheme is still going strong, with more than 1000 operators now involved but Australia has otherwise taken its eye off the ball.

"We probably haven't moved past where we were in the '90s," Charters says. "Other people have grabbed the concepts Australia developed and run with them and we've almost become an innocent bystander."

Poon Tip, who is based in Toronto, believes Australia suffers from "a good problem" of having such a wealth and breadth of tourism assets.

"Ecotourism is a niche market; it gets less attention because it doesn't bring the big numbers," he says. "Ecotourism can be just as profitable, or even more profitable, but it needs more finessing and micromanagement."

The chief executive of Ecotourism Australia, Kym Cheatham, agrees Australia missed the opportunity to remain the world leader in the field and has a tendency to look within rather than at what the rest of the world is doing. But Cheatham is confident the Noosa conference, which has attracted internationally renowned speakers, will help put Australia back in play.

Charters says Australia needs to stop living off past glories and invest serious money in infrastructure for ecotourism.

He estimates the country needs to spend at least $1 billion a year over the next decade to regain its world-leading status.

On Charters' wish-list is significant investment in facilities and innovative tour options for national parks, such as the tree canopy walkway that opened in the Valley of the Giants in southern Western Australia in the 1990s.

"There are issues, with the conservation sector not wanting to see over-development of national parks, but I think there's an opportunity to facilitate national park visitation with some level of comfort," he says.

Charters names Southern Ocean Lodge on South Australia's Kangaroo Island and the Wolgan Valley Resort in the Blue Mountains as two recent projects that have made significant contributions to Australia's ecotourism status.

He says both have a strong conservation objective and offer a high-quality experience. However, with both of these lodges in the luxury price range, is there a risk of ecotourism becoming the domain of the rich?

Charters hopes this is not the case, saying there is also great potential at the other end of the market, particularly in "moving camping up a couple of pegs".

He believes camping has fallen out of favour with families because of the effort required by people to pack up when both parents are working.

Charters thinks that, accordingly, there is a ready-made market for a permanent tent-style accommodation.

Poon Tip believes there is no need for huge investment, saying success in ecotourism is about focus rather than spending.

"Ecotourism never costs big dollars, it's very much a grassroots movement, but it does need attention," he says.

One thing Poon Tip and Charters do agree on is that Australia falls well short on indigenous tourism experiences, despite strong demand from both Australian and international travellers.

"Most countries in the world would give anything for the cultural history that Australia has," Poon Tip says.

"Australia doesn't promote the cultural assets that it has.

"There are a lot of Sydney Harbour Bridge posters out there."

Two of the best in the world

TWO Australian lodges have been recognised in a book by leading eco-architecture expert Hitesh Mehta. Authentic Ecolodges, which will be launched at the Noosa ecotourism conference, names Queensland's Daintree EcoLodge & Spa and Tasmania's Bay of Fires Lodge among the world's best. US-based Mehta says most Australian lodges fall short on the involvement of local communities. Daintree EcoLodge and Bay of Fires "are very much connected" with local Aboriginal communities, he says.