Let’s Talk Ecotourism – National Parks Association of Queensland

Let’s Talk Ecotourism

Author: Julia Bartrim, Member, National Parks Association of Queensland (NPAQ)

Photography: Yuraygir Walking Experiences and Kalam McTaggart

In October last year, NPAQ organised a seminar in Brisbane to discuss an important issue: the pros and cons of ecotourism in national parks.

We caught up with two of the speakers after the event to get their perspectives in more detail (input from the other two speakers will be sought for the next edition).

An image from the Yuraygir walk

Tony O’Brien is the founder and owner of ecotourism business: Yuraygir Walking Experiences. He is also a former NPAQ president.

Yuraygir National Park, on the NSW north coast, is part of the largest coastal wildlife corridor in the state. It has spectacular cliff top walks overlooking the Pacific and from May to November, you can watch whales passing by.

Tony started Yuraygir Walking Experiences (YWE) in 2015 because he wanted to help improve the conservation values of the national park. As part of this goal, YWE recently purchased 300 acres of land adjacent to the park. It plans to restore the land and provide a quality buffer for the park. The funding for this and future purchases came from Tony’s business, Sentis, where the staff are highly motivated to contribute to this goal.

Can you describe how Yuraygir Walking Experiences works?

YWE uses small villages to billet campers; the park was created around the villages so it works well. There’s just some very basic camps in the park itself…all they have is pit toilets. There’s nothing else.

The walk itself is 65 km over four days with three river boat crossings required. Many people request their bags carried and dropped off at night so there’s a big role for guides/coordination. The walking business doesn’t make much money and it probably never will. It’s really difficult to make money out of this type of business. The ideal owners would be a couple who treat it as a lifestyle business.

An image from the Yuraygir walk

What do you think about the construction of eco-villages in more remote national parks; where existing external infrastructure doesn’t exist or isn’t practical?

I don’t see why you need infrastructure in national parks. If you want to come and camp in Yuraygir, well that’s fine but it’s pretty limited, I think that’s the way it should be. My view is the best tourism ventures are those that are created by entrepreneurial situations, where people can access the park and walk in the park, but the infrastructure shouldn’t be in the parks.

In what ways does YWE benefit the national park’s conservation values?

By operating locally through the villages which abut Yuraygir National Park, we employ local people both directly and indirectly and jobs that come from the park generally lead to respect for the park. This is important in an area of both unemployment and underemployment. One of the most encouraging aspects in this area is the number of local landholders who are now contributing to protecting the…park by engaging in the Land for Wildlife movement within their properties.

Adrian Caneris is managing director and principal wildlife specialist of a specialist ecological consulting company based in Queensland. He previously worked for the QLD Department of Environment in a role akin to a wildlife ranger.

What is your view on eco-tourism infrastructure in national parks?

It’s one of those areas where the devil is in the detail. The way it’s done is the issue. The QLD government is currently looking at [what’s needed on] some of the great walks, which are 3-5 days through wilderness areas. The aim is to use small pods (almost like plastic tents) that are fully removable. They’d be set up for ongoing use for a 1-5 year period. They are fully removable and easily picked up. The [tourism] operator would bring in mobile catering.

Do you see ecotourism ventures as likely to benefit the ecological values of the national parks in which they operate?

Governments as a whole won’t continue funding national parks if they don’t see a benefit to it. Our national parks are worth billions of dollars to us in terms of mental health, recreational health and biodiversity. Having them produce a monetary turnover helps [the government] to see that. At the moment though there’s [often] not a lot [of benefit] in it for the national park itself. People are taking 4×4 tours along beach foreshores and going through national parks to do it and there’s no return. QLD is a long way behind other states in terms of user pays tourism. The money raised [if the government implemented a fee to access national parks] should ultimately go back to the park.

I’m generally comfortable with ecotourism, when it’s done properly.


Key points from the Queensland Government’s Ecotourism Plan 2016-2020, published in 2016

• The Ecotourism Plan 2016-2020 touts a “fresh approach” to ecotourism

• The government and tourism bodies have been investing “significant effort” into “repositioning Queensland as…a world leader in ecotourism”

• The plan identifies one of the key challenges as: work(ing) with the tourism industry to investigate and identify viable ecotourism projects on tenure other than the protected area estate

• The plan also states “there are opportunities available for privately owned ecotourism experiences on and off protected areas…[when considering investment] preference will be given to previously disturbed areas (brown field sites) rather than intact areas (green field sites).”

• Research indicates that Queensland’s national parks receive 51 million domestic traveller visits and 7.9 million visits from international travellers per year

• The Queensland Government estimates that direct spending by visitors of over $749 million per annum can be attributed exclusively to the existence of national parks

• The World Tourism Organisation defines ecotourism in part as: “…generally, but not exclusively organised by small tour operators for small groups. Service provider partners at the destinations tend to be small, locally owned businesses”

One thought on “Let’s Talk Ecotourism

  1. Liz Downes says:

    Of the ecotourism projects announced in October 2018 (for Whitsunday Island, Great Sandy, and Hinchinbrook Island national parks) which, if any, were proposed for previously disturbed (brownfield) sites? I suspect none. The pre-existing Thorsborne Trail on Hinchinbrook could certainly not be described as a “disturbed site” since it was designed and has been maintained as a, narrow, low-key natural track with absolute minimal disturbance and carefully regulated bush camping only – yet this was selected as the focus for the private enterprise proposal and could not be achieved without much greater disturbance. The failed Cape Richards resort at the northern end of the Island (well away from the Trail) had been allowed to degenerate into the must disgustingly polluted brown site which is now costing taxpayers a lot of money to clean and restore to its previous natural state. This had once for many years been an “ecotourism” venture that had been “done properly”, as Adrian Caneris advocates, before it became the complete opposite. And that’s the problem – once the venture is IN the park, no matter how sensitively it is constructed and run in the early years, if or when things go wrong down the track through change of ownership, economic downturn, successive governments that slash NP budgets or bow to demands of the licencees for bigger this or more of that etc etc, then the very first thing that suffers is the National Park itself (its flora and fauna, habitats, ecosystems) and the next thing is the natural, unspoiled experience that visitors seek. Adrian also says that “Governments as a whole won’t continue funding national parks if they don’t see a benefit to it” – so, over $749 million per annum coming into the Qld economy and “attributed exclusively to the existence of national parks” isn’t enough to be visible?

    For the record I have no objection at all to the public paying a fee to access National Parks, as happens in other states – with the money going directly to Parks management. I think it would make us feel a greater ownership and pride in our Parks and make our voices for good management stronger (perhaps that’s what Qld Gov is afraid of?!). But opening the door to commercial enterprises on public land via leases so long that anyone over 40 will be unlikely to see to their conclusion, is not acceptable – and, given the nightmare of climate change and extinctions that is rushing towards us, looks like madness.

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