Square Peg, Round Hole: A Cursory Autopsy of Victoria’s Wildlife and Nature Tourism Strategy

In March, the Monash Sustainable Tourism Association (MSTA) organized a tour to the You Yangs Regional Park with the Koala Clancy Foundation and Echidna Walkabout Tours for a glimpse into conservation-oriented tourism. The aim was to unify participants under a common goal towards proactive participation and more sustainable tourism practice. The conservation day involved walking, weeding, and watching Clancy, the world’s most famous koala and the Foundation’s poster boy.
What set out be a narrative of the day, composed to demonstrate the links between conservation, tourism, and regional development, turned into an accidental journey down a rabbit hole. The examination precipitated four pivotal questions regarding Victoria’s approach to wildlife and nature tourism.

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Why wildlife tourism?

Victoria’s biodiversity includes over 200 regionally and nationally endangered species whose habitats are at risk from habitat degradation, bush fires, and weed invasion. Despite the watertight argument for the instrumental and intrinsic values of wildlife and its protection, the reality is that wildlife is going to have to pay for its own survival.

Correctly managed wildlife tourism is one relatively harmless way of tackling this problem. Wildlife tourism presents a strong case for conservation, as it offers people a chance to consume a product and understand its value. It provides a long-term source of employment and income, and bridges the growing gap between people and planet.

Tourism has the capacity to cover a share of the investment required to sustain local wildlife and their habitats. The Foundation testifies to tourism’s potential to harness the good intentions of tourists and volunteers, who are more willing to invest in consuming such a product. They believe it is easier to stimulate tourist interests with a novel experience, which is augmented by knowledge of the scope of their contribution.

“Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.”

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Why does Victoria not capitalise on its assets?

Native Australian wildlife is unlike any other and attracts visitors from around the globe. However, Tourism Victoria primarily promotes wildlife tourism in controlled environments like Werribee Open Range Zoo and Melbourne Zoo. We believe that if the state supported alternative wildlife tourism as well, it would encourage innovation and product diversification which create more jobs for the industry. In the contest between Melbourne and the rest of Victoria for tourism numbers and revenue, the You Yangs appears to fall through the cracks. It is significantly underfunded and underpromoted by the industry and the private sector.

Why does Victoria insist on developing artificial tourism products instead of taking advantage of its existing assets? Is the priority to import animals to rehabilitate endangered wildlife in Africa, when its own wildlife population is being overwhelmed by deforestation and mining? Let’s face it, baiting an international audience with international wildlife is just silly. Nobody travels to Australia to see lions.

What is stopping community action?

Community action, or the lack thereof, was a major point of our discussions with Janine and Kirby, as one of the biggest challenges faced by conservationists outside the conventional tourism sector. Perhaps, the immediate goal should be to engage Australians with their own wildlife to encourage conservation.

Community inaction can be partially attributed to the classic “local” reluctance to pay to consume one’s own neighbourhood as a tourist. The other, said Kirby, is that people are aware and in support of the local koala population, but are content with making a small, one-off donation instead of a long-term commitment to the cause.

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Where does wildlife fit in development?

Many developing countries see nature tourism as a path towards to poverty alleviation and social inclusion. Even in developed economies, the natural environment is at odds with human activity. The loss of habitat and the consequent extinction of species would impact the ecotourism industry and the jobs it creates, and tourism is a far more preferable alternative to employment in mining and timber. Tourism integrates various industries and enterprises like farming, textiles, and handicrafts.

Along with Clancy and his friends, the park is close to a sacred aboriginal site, and the Foundation works closely with the region’s indigenous community. It paves the way for social inclusion and cohesion within the communities that live in the region, simultaneously contributing to the protection of not just its natural assets, but its cultural heritage too. It converts the resultant product to one greater than the sum of its parts.

Divya Sahasrabuddhe
Alumni, Master of International Sustainable Tourism Management
Alessandro Frau
Student, Masters of International Sustainable Tourism Management

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