Clearing the trails back to our national parks

Large parts of Kosciuszko National Park were previously off limits.
Large parts of Kosciuszko National Park were previously off limits. 

New tours, accommodation and safari-style camping are part of the campaign to get more of us to explore the wilderness at our doorstep.

NATIONAL parks are all about trees and walking tracks, right? For those outdoor types who like camping and know one type of plant from another.

If that pretty much sums up your thinking on national parks and conservation areas, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is out to change your mind.

The organisation has been tasked with increasing visitor numbers to NSW national parks by 20 per cent over the next five years and says finding recruits will be vital.

If you're not into camping, NPWS staff will show you alternatives.

If you're not confident about setting off into a wilderness area, they'll introduced you to tour operators who can lead the way.

In short, they want you to see national parks as tourism experiences, not tracts of land locked away for perpetuity.

You may ask why the government is targeting an increase in visitors to areas set aside for conservation, especially when domestic visits alone already number about 38 million a year. But tourism is increasingly being seen as a key to conservation, so long as it is done in a sustainable way, with licensed operators and low-impact development.

Sally Barnes, the head of NPWS, says the state wants to become a world leader in mixing conservation with tourism.

"What we're seeing around the rest of the world is declining visitation to conservation areas by about 1 per cent each year," Barnes says. "We're bucking that trend ... I think a lot of that is because we are taking a very planned approach to tourism."

Barnes points out that NSW's first national park, the Royal National Park (the second national park in the world, after Yellowstone in the US), was always intended as a leisure area. "We've been catering for visitors and tourists ever since the first park."

Barnes says that when it comes to national park visits, a demographic that's under-represented is young families.

"There is a whole bunch of young families who are not giving it a go," she says. "It could be because they are time-poor, it could be because they need the information packaged in a slightly different way. Or it could be because they have no confidence with camping because their families didn't go camping. There's a loss of connection to the parks."

The goal of boosting visitors to national parks is linked to legislative changes that passed through the NSW Parliament last month, providing funds for improved access and the development of new tourism products.

One of the key changes is the opening up of wilderness areas - which account for nearly one-third of the parks system - to licensed tour operators for activities such as small-group guided walks and kayaking. The changes will also allow for a more co-ordinated approach to tourism.

Barnes says a good example is in the south, in Kosciuszko National Park, large parts of which tour operators have not previously been allowed to venture into, even though no similar restrictions have applied across the border in Victoria.

"This [new legislation] brings NSW into line with Victoria and also Queensland," she says.

Other wilderness areas opened to tour operators include parts of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and rainforest regions on the north coast.

The new framework is also intended to make it generally easier for operators to come into the parks with their own new tourism products.

Barnes says she sees great potential in the creation of multi-day, long-distance walks such as those found in New Zealand and in other parts of Australia.

She wants people to have the option to walk from lodge to lodge, with the lodges run by people experienced in hospitality.

"They know how to welcome people and what sort of chocolates to put on the pillow. That's not our field," she says.

A multi-day walk in the planning stage is a 32-kilometre hike through the Ben Boyd National Park in the state's south-east.

Later this year, the NPWS will seek expressions of interest from the private sector, with accommodation including the existing heritage lighthouse coupled with new options such as safari-style tents or an eco-lodge.

"I think it has the potential to be a world-class, must-do walk," Barnes says.

Where to look before you go

IF YOU want to begin exploring national parks but don't quite know how to go about it, a great starting point is the NPWS website wildwildworld.com.au.

It details activities and tours on offer in NSW's parks. You can search for everything on offer in a certain area, or for specifics such as free events, activities geared towards children, or wildlife encounters.

You can even enter your travel dates to find activities suitable for the time of year.

For more information, phone 1300 361 967 or see nationalparks.nsw.gov.au.

jane@janeefraser.com.au

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