Sustainable travel: The tourism heroes helping Australia's natural environment

During 2020, when tourists were scarce on the Great Barrier Reef, Alan Wallish, founder of Passions of Paradise (passions.com.au), which offers diving and snorkelling excursions on the Outer Reef, organised weekly coral regeneration expeditions for himself and 18 staff, planting 2000 live corals in a three-month period.

At Coodlie Park Farm Retreat (coodliepark.com.au) on the Eyre Peninsula, Craig "Hassie'' Haslem replants 1.2 hectares of native vegetation each year, transforming what was a run-down farm into a 100 per cent carbon neutral farm stay, which is a launching point for interactive guided tours of the rugged region with Australian Wildlife Adventures.

In Victoria's Cape Otway, Lizzie Cork and husband Shayne Neal of the Conservation Ecology Centre (conservationecologycentre.org) have planted more than 100,000 koala habitat trees over the past decade and have initiated several urgent conservation programs, including detecting and protecting endangered potoroos and tiger quolls.

We may not know their names, but they are just a few of hundreds of sustainability heroes working tirelessly in Australia's tourism industry, as custodians of the irreplaceable environments on which they operate. "I call them legacy-makers," says Penny Rafferty, head of sustainability at Tourism Australia, whose role is to drive awareness of the extraordinary work already being done by many individuals, while guiding others to follow in their footsteps.

Long before sustainable tourism became a buzzword, these entrepreneurs were already working hard as caretakers of Australia's natural ecosystems, driven by a belief that tourism can be a powerful means of communicating conservation messages to generations of travellers.

Twenty years ago, Greg Irons, director of Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary (bonorong.com.au), began Tasmania's first wildlife rescue service when he finished high school. For 25 years Tim Tranter of Tread-Lightly Eco Tours (treadlightly.com.au) has been leading interpretative bush walks in the Blue Mountains. Ian Johnstone started his popular trek on UNESCO-recognised Maria Island in South-East Tasmania in 2003 and later became the key instigator in the establishment of Great Walks of Tasmania (mariaislandwalk.com.au).

And on NSW's Sapphire Coast, Loz Hunt and business partner Sam Bright have been regenerating and restoring the natural habitat around the 17-hectare luxury glamping retreat Tanja Lagoon Camp (tanjalagooncamp.com.au) and establishing safe wildlife corridors for more than 20 years.

Many are small, family-run businesses. The Gash family on Lady Elliot Island, 80 kilometres off of Queensland's coast, have been protecting the 45-hectare island (ladyelliot.com.au) since Peter Gash leased it in 2005 with plans to build an eco-resort, lobbying successfully to create a no-take fishing Green Zone around it. Sixteen years later, the island is powered by almost 100 per cent renewables with the implementation of 900 solar panels and 240 batteries, which equates to reducing around 500 tonnes of carbon emissions.

What's most important about all these small businesses is that guests are an integral part of the conservation process. Charles Carlow, founder of Arkaba Conservancy (arkabaconservancy.com), a sheep station-turned-wildlife refuge in the Flinders Ranges, says: "Tourism income underwrites our conservation efforts, and the resulting regeneration – with numerous species now flourishing – enhances the guest experience."

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It's a classic win-win. "Guests come away with a far deeper understanding and appreciation of how special this place is," says Gene Hardy, managing director of Cape to Cape Explorer Tours in Margaret River (capetocapetours.com.au). "Returning guests tell me things like, 'My first Cape to Cape walk eight years ago changed my life'." Mostly, they've changed their values. Seeing their joy is what keeps us going."

Education is key and so is truth-telling. Rosie Sandover and Bec Sampi are partners in Kingfisher Tours (kingfishertours.com.au), which offers luxury air, sea and land journeys of the Kimberley and is a pathway into the tourism business for Indigenous peoples. Bec is a Gija woman and the only Indigenous female head guide in the country. "We show guests what we know: stunning, pristine wilderness and the stories behind it," she says. 'We don't gloss over complex issues such as social dysfunction – we help guests understand and empathise with our objective of nurturing and supporting Indigenous people to find a way out of that.'

In Victoria, James "Murph'' Murphy, captain and owner of Sea All Dolphins Swims in Port Phillip Bay (dolphinswims.com.au) works with high school students to teach them about marine conservation through dolphin and seal swim tours. In recent times, he has introduced plastics recycling workshops. "The reward is seeing the penny drop for students, when they create something useful from waste and realise that they – anyone – have the power to make a real difference," he says.

Australia's impassioned ambassadors of the environment are out there, eager to show off their patch of the world, and leave you with wonderful memories, and have you come away richer for the experience. As Penny Rafferty observes, when people talk about their holidays, "the stories they tell are always about the moments when they were slightly uncomfortable or outside their comfort zone, where they discovered something. They never talk about the thread count on the sheets.'

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