Enjoy them while you can? The ecotourism challenge facing Australia’s favourite islands



Remarkable Rocks, Kangaroo Island, South Australia.
Greg Brave/Shutterstock

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, University of South Australia

I fell for Kangaroo Island from my first visit. I recall standing on a headland on the island’s southern coast, near Remarkable Rocks (a popular tourist site), and being awestruck by the Southern Ocean.

The island (Australia’s third-largest after Tasmania and Melville Island) is one of 16 designated National Landscapes and arguably South Australia’s greatest tourism treasure. Its protected areas (notably Flinders Chase National Park) are home to rare and endangered marsupials and birds.

A year ago, in Australia’s “Black Summer”, bushfires ravaged more than half the island (about 211,000 hectares). Those fires underscored the threat to this and other iconic island destinations.

Both directly and indirectly, humans are endangering these fragile ecosystems through unsustainable development and human-caused climate change.

The most ironic threat is from unsustainable tourism. These islands attract millions of visitors a year keen to experience their natural wonders. Yet often this very “ecotourism” is contributing to their degradation.

How to do better?

Last October I took part in a workshop at which Kangaroo Island’s tourism operators discussed how to do so. 2020 was a difficult year for them, first with the fires, then with the COVID-19 pandemic. But in that adversity they also saw the opportunity to reset “business as usual” and come back better, creating an industry not harming its core asset.




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A range of ideas came out of our talks applicable to all our island destinations. But there was one key point. Ecotourism should be more than fleeting feel-good experiences. It should not be a “value extraction” but a “values education”, inspiring visitors to go home and live more eco-consciously.

Macquarie island

The paradox of ecotourism is perhaps best exemplified by Australia’s least visited island destination – Macquarie Island, about 1,500 km south-east of Hobart, halfway between New Zealand and the Antarctica.

Just 1,500 tourists a year, rather than hundreds of thousands, are permitted by the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service to visit. The island has no hotels, restaurants or souvenir shops. The only buildings are those of the Macquarie Island Station research base and a few isolated field huts for scientists.

The Macquarie Island Research Base.
The Macquarie Island Research Base.
Dale Lorna Jacobsen/Shutterstock

Tourists must be content with coming ashore for the day from the 18 small cruise ships that ply these waters in summer. The only hospitality is the traditional station offering of tea and scones.

But what tourists do get is a unique experience. Macquarie is World Heritage listed as the only island made entirely from the earth’s mantle. It also teems with wildlife – multiple species of penguins and seals in their tens of thousands, and birds in their millions.

Royal Penguins and Southern Elephant Seals at Sandy Bay, Macquarie Island.
Royal Penguins and Southern Elephant Seals at Sandy Bay, Macquarie Island.
Janelle Lugge/Shutterstock

It’s about as pure an ecotourism experience you can have (if you can afford it). Even so, it still takes resources to get there, including the burning of fossil fuels, contributing to the global warming that is the greatest threat to the environmental integrity of Macquarie Island (and other island ecosystems).

However, the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service does at least expect cruise ship operators to “demonstrate their capacity to deliver desirable outcomes” on criteria including minimisation of environmental impacts and communicating to tourists “messages about the natural and cultural values of the island”, including the role they play in its preservation.




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K’gari (Fraser island)

Communicating such messages is something that certainly needs improvement on another World Heritage listed island – K’gari (commonly known as Fraser island), the world’s largest sand island.

About 250 km north of Brisbane, at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, the island draws many hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to its beaches, woodlands and rainforests. (There are no recent public statistics on island visitor numbers but in 2017-18 the Fraser Coast region attracted 1,515,000 visitors.)

Rainforest on K'gari.
Rainforest on K’gari.
Marco Saracco/Shutterstock

Once the island’s resources were mined and logged. Tourism was meant to be much less exploitative. But a range of organisations including the International Union for Conservation of Nature have highlighted the pressure tourist numbers (along with their vehicles and infrastructure) are placing on K’gari’s landscapes and wildlife.

Communicating to all those visitors the role they play in the island’s preservation appears to be failing. The bushfires that burnt half the island (about 165,500 hectares) over nine weeks between October and December last year allegedly resulted from an illegal camp fire.

Headline-grabbing attacks by the island’s residents dingos – such as in April 2019 when a toddler was dragged from a campervan – have also been credited to rampant irresponsible tourist behaviour (feeding dingoes to get better photos, for example).

Indigenous elders, conservationists and scientists have all pointed to the problem of a mass-tourism model that doesn’t put enough emphasis on educating visitors about the environment and their responsibilities.




Read more:
The K’gari-Fraser Island bushfire is causing catastrophic damage. What can we expect when it’s all over?


Rottnest Island

One of our proposals for Kangaroo Island is to reduce the impact of motor vehicles through encouraging more extended walking and cycling experiences.

The value of sustainable transport as the foundation for ecotourism is demonstrated by Rottnest Island, 20 km off the coast of Perth.

The entire island is managed as an A-Class Nature Reserve. Apart from service vehicles and shuttle buses, it is car-free. You can hire a bike or bring your own to get around the island (11 km long and 4.5 km wide). Or simply walk.

The absence of traffic makes a Rottnest holiday a distinctly more relaxed experience. It’s a fair example of slow tourism; and, of course, it is also good for the island’s world famous quokkas, which co-exist with close to 800,000 visitors a year.

Rottnest island has the world’s only sizeable population of quokkas. There are 10,000 to 12,000 quokkas on the island.
Grakhantsev Nikolai/Shutterstock



Read more:
Before and after: 4 new graphics show the recovery from last summer’s bushfire devastation


Before they are gone

Given a little space, nature is resilient.

After Kangaroo Island’s bushfires a year ago, for example, it was feared a number of endangered species had finally been driven to extinction.

But in two of 2020’s few good news stories, scientists found critically endangered Kangaroo Island dunnarts and little pygmy possums – the world’s smallest marsupial – had survived.

Kangaroo Island pygmy possum.
Kangaroo Island pygmy possum.
Ashlee Benc/Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, CC BY

But we can’t take that resilience for granted if we keep putting pressure on these fragile ecosystems. We need a better approach to ensure ecotourism isn’t about enjoying these natural wonders before they are gone.The Conversation

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From Kangaroo Island to the Great Barrier Reef, the paradox that is luxury ecotourism



File 20190310 86686 dcsaov.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island. Each new luxury ecotourism development becomes a precedent to allow future incursions.
Southern Ocean Lodge/AAP

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, University of South Australia

Kangaroo Island, less than 130 kilometres from Adelaide, is one of Australia’s ecological jewels. Tourism Australia describes it as a “pristine wilderness”, with cliffs, beaches, wetlands and dense bushland offering protection to native animals such as penguins, sea lions, pelicans, koalas and, of course, kangaroos.

Kangaroo Island.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

It is a place “too good to spoil”.

Many who agree fear that new developments will do exactly that. With the state government’s approval, a tourism company wants to build two luxury tourist villages at unspoilt locations on the island’s west coast, within the protected area of the Flinders Chase National Park, the state’s second-oldest national park.

Park volunteers have gone on strike in opposition. Hundreds have rallied before South Australia’s parliament in support of “public parks, not private playgrounds”.

The issue is not unique to Kangaroo Island. Around Australia, and the world, national parks are under threat from the curious paradox of luxury tourism, which demands development in protected wilderness areas to cater for those who want to enjoy the natural environment without any interruption of their lifestyle.




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Death by a thousand cuts

My research has involved studying past development controversies on Kangaroo Island. One is Southern Ocean Lodge, a six-star ecolodge near Flinders Chase developed in the mid-2000s. Another is the Kangaroo Island Surf Music Festival, held in 2011 at Vivonne Bay, on the island’s south coast.

Southern Ocean Lodge, Kangaroo Island, South Australia.
Southern Ocean Lodge/AAP

Both cases illuminate the process by which parks authorities are pressured to support commercial tourism enterprises in their protected areas.

Park authorities never have enough funding to pay for conservation. Tourism authorities motivated by growth indicators seek to attract high-yield tourists. Luxury ecotourism is a lucrative niche. As budgets for the environment are cut, the financial incentives dangled by tourism authorities become irresistible.

It is presented as a win-win collaboration. Any single venture can be justified on the grounds that the immediate benefits outweigh the costs. But each development becomes a precedent to allow future incursions, resulting in “death by a thousand cuts”.

Elsewhere in Australia

South Australian authorities are hardly alone in accepting this faustian bargain.

In Tasmania, the federal and state governments are backing plans for a tourism development on an island in the middle of Lake Malbena in the central highlands. The lake is within the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

The plan reportedly involves building three luxury huts and a helipad so six people at a time can fly in for three-night getaways at a cost of about A$4,500 each.




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In Queensland, the state government has plans to offer 60-year leases to commercial tourism operators in three national parks (the Whitsunday Islands National Park, the Great Sandy National Park and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park). The operators will be allowed to build “eco-lodges” and offer “commercial experiences”.

An insight into what those experiences might involve is provided by The Weekend Australian Magazine, (whose readers have an average income of A$116,495).

The article “Walk this way: adventures in the great outdoors” (published 2-3 March 2019) talks of “fully supported walking experiences” with “luxury accommodations” and “premium food and wines” costing thousands of dollars, and in some cases using helicopters to access remote park sites.

Australian Walking Company

One company keen to snare the Queensland leases is the developer of the Kangaroo Island luxury tourism plan, Australian Walking Company. A director and significant shareholder in the company is Brett Godfrey, the former chief executive of Virgin Australia who is now chairman of Tourism Queensland.

All that glitters: Brett Godfrey strikes a pose to promote Virgin’s Australian operation in 2007.
Virgin Australia

Godfrey has addressed his potential conflict of interest by taking advice from the office of the Queensland Integrity Commissioner.

Nonetheless, his dual interests give an insight into the problematic nature of governments and tourism bureaucracies supporting luxury ecotourism developments in conservation areas; particularly when (as former Queensland minister for national parks Steve Dickson said in 2013), they are “looking to make money”.

Private versus public interest

The business strategy of unlocking national parks for luxury eco-tourism development risks undermining the very point of creating such parks in the first place. It pits the private interests of the wealthy against the public interest in environmental and local benefits.

It places no value on the conservation work of “friends of parks” groups, which support these parks primarily as places for conservation and secondly as publicly funded places to enjoy, learn about and connect to nature.

Catering to the luxury eco-tourist is at odds with the “wild” and undeveloped nature that conservationists and local park lovers want. You can’t get away from it all and take it all with you.

Advocates can argue that luxury eco-tourism is more sustainable because it offers high economic yield with fewer numbers. But take that argument to its logical extreme and we’ll end up with situations like that in Indonesia.

Komodo lessons

The governor of the province that includes Komodo National Park, the island home of komodo dragons, wants to increase the park’s entrance fee by 5,000%, from about US$10 to US$500. It would certainly reduce tourist numbers, but also effectively make the park off-limits to most Indonesians.

The governor, Victor Laidkodat, is apparently fine with that. “This is a rare place, only for people with money,” he has reportedly said. “Those who don’t have enough money shouldn’t come because this place is for extraordinary people.”




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This is certainly not what we want for our own national parks, turning them into private playgrounds for the privileged few.

This year is the centenary of Kangaroo Island’s Flinders Chase National Park. It’s a good time to look back and appreciate the vision that led to its establishment in 1919, and to look critically at what our vision is for the next 100 years.The Conversation

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Going on safari? Research shows ecotourism can help save threatened species


Guy Castley, Griffith University; Clare Morrison, Griffith University, and Ralf Buckley, Griffith University

Should your next holiday include a safari, whale watching, or a trip to a tiger temple? Ecotourism has recently been in the spotlight. For instance, we’ve seen claims that tourism helps conserve tigers and that it has been linked to wildlife trafficking.

But how can we tell if ecotourism is good or bad for threatened species? In our research published today in PLOS ONE we looked at nine different species, and found that overall, ecotourism is good for wildlife. Great green macaw in Costa Rica, Egyptian vultures in Spain, hoolock gibbons in India, African penguins, African wild dogs, cheetahs, and golden lion tamarins in Brazil all benefited from tourism.

But we also found that current tourism levels aren’t enough to help orang utans in Sumatra, and are actually bad for sea lions in New Zealand. So how do we get the balance right?

African penguins in Algoa Bay, South Africa
Guy Castley

What is ecotourism?

“Ecotourism” is a very broad term. It may include visitors to public national parks, volunteers for community projects, or adventurous expeditions to remote regions. Some may even include hunting safaris.

Ecotourism has both positive and negative effects. It can contribute to conservation, or impact wildlife, or both. Some effects are small, others large; some direct, others indirect.

Attitudes of local communities towards native wildlife, for example, influence whether they support or oppose poaching. Furthermore, income from ecotourism may be used for conservation and local community development projects, but not always.

We also need some way to measure ecotourism effects on wildlife? Many ecotourism measures are social or economic rather than ecological. It’s often difficult to compare positive and negative impacts on a species. Therefore, quantifying the net effect of ecotourism is challenging.

For species at risk of extinction, such as those in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, it is critical to be able to assess how various threats, including tourism, affect their survival. So we wanted to develop a way of measuring how ecotourism affects the risk of extinction for these species.

Measuring ecotourism

Previously when considering ecotourism researchers looked at revenue to parks, and how much of a species’ global population was protected by these parks.

This approach showed that tourism funding is significant for many IUCN Redlisted mammals, birds and amphibians. But it doesn’t tell us whether ecotourism will help or harm a specific species or population.

Our new approach uses population analysis (specifically population viability analysis). This sort of analysis is the gold standard for predicting future population trends, and probable time to extinction, for threatened species.

We looked at how populations changed over time in response to threatening processes, by simulating births and deaths one generation at a time. We do this thousands of times to estimate extinction risk. These methods are well-tested and widely-used in practical wildlife management.

African wild dogs
Ralf Buckley

To do this we need to know a couple of things about the species we are looking at: habitat area; population size and age. We also need to know the birth and death rates for different ages as well as migration patterns. This information exists only for some threatened species such as those used in our study.

We also need to be able to convert ecotourism effects into these measures of species performance. By looking at how ecotourism affects these aspects we can compare ecotourism to other threats such as poaching, logging, or fishing.

A tiger in India (from the back of an elephant)
Ralf Buckley

Winners and losers

For seven of the species that we looked at, ecotourism provides net conservation gains. This is achieved through establishing private conservation reserves, restoring habitat or by reducing habitat damage. Removing feral predators, increasing anti-poaching patrols, captive breeding and supplementary feeding also helps.

But for orang utans in Sumatra, small-scale ecotourism cannot overcome the negative impacts of logging. However, larger-scale ecotourism yields a net positive outcome by enabling habitat protection and reintroduction of individuals from captive situations.

Unfortunately for New Zealand’s sea lions, ecotourism only compounds the impacts of intensive fisheries, because it increases the number of sea lion pups dying as a result of direct disturbance at haul out sites.

Our research highlights three key messages. The first is that to predict how ecotourism affects wildlife, we need to know basic things about them: ecotourism needs biologists as well as social scientists.

The second is that the effects of ecotourism are not universal: whether ecotourism is good or bad depends on the species and local circumstances.

The third, and perhaps most important, is that ecotourism, at appropriate levels, can indeed help to save threatened species from extinction.

River ecotourism at the Storms River Mouth, Tsitsikama National Park, South Africa.
Guy Castley

The Conversation

Guy Castley, Senior Lecturer, Griffith University; Clare Morrison, Research Fellow – Academic Editor, Griffith University, and Ralf Buckley, International Chair in Ecotourism Research, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ecotourism could be making animals less scared, and easier to eat


Daniel Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles; Benjamin Geffroy, Institut Nationale de Recherche Agronomique (INRA) – Université Paris Saclay; Diogo Samia, Universidade de Sao Paulo, and Eduardo Bessa, Universidade do Estado de Mato Grosso

Wildlife populations are suffering death by a thousand cuts as a result of human activities. Wildlife are being hunted, fished, and poached. They are suffering from climate change and pollution. Diseases take their toll, as do newly invasive species. They are also being fragmented as a function of increased habitat destruction.

These are obvious culprits of environmental disruption. But there is one realm where we may be having an unanticipated impact on wildlife: nature-based tourism.

It is possible that our increasing penchant for nature tourism is making wildlife in these areas more vulnerable to predators. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have enough data to properly assess this risk.

Our team brought attention to this concern in a review recently published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. In the study, we attempt to understand how animals may become more docile, bolder, and less fearful when exposed to humans.

We suggest this could then potentially lead to an increased risk of predation when people leave the area, signalling an unrecognised cost of ecotourism.

A ‘human shield’

To domesticate animals, we must tame them, and this often means deliberately selecting those individuals that are more docile and tolerant. Domestication is, in part, achieved by making animals safe from predators – for example by fencing them in, bringing them into our homes, or raising them in cages.

We are now learning that urbanisation causes similar effects: animals that prosper in the cities are generally more docile and less fearful of humans than animals that live outside the cities. There is also evidence of genetic evolution of urban animal populations.

In many cases, predators avoid urban areas, creating a “human shield” that protects urban prey and can trigger a cascade of ecological changes. Behind such a shield, prey become more likely to frequent the areas predators avoid. This leads prey to be less vigilant against predators and devote a greater time to foraging. We can often see these effects when the vegetation takes a noticeable hit.

But urbanised areas are not the only context where human shields can arise. Nature-based tourism, too, might create a shield effect.

More tourists, more animals getting eaten?

According to a recent report, there are more than 8 billion visits to terrestrial protected areas annually. That’s as if each person on Earth visited a protected area once, and then some! This number is even more impressive given that the report only considered visitors to protected areas larger than 10 hectares, and didn’t include marine protected areas.

Such a human presence on natural areas has obvious damaging effects, such as increased traffic and pollution, vegetation trampling, and vehicle collisions with wildlife. However, in our study we speculate that nature-based tourism might, under certain circumstances, also create a human shield that makes wildlife more vulnerable to predators.

We already know that this has increased some species’ vulnerability to wildlife poachers and illegal hunters.

At first glance, it seems unlikely that animals would respond less to predators simply by becoming used to the presence of humans.

Prey species have sophisticated anti-predator abilities to assess their risk of attack. These inborn warning systems are the result of an evolutionary arms race, meaning that some animals respond to “ghosts” even after being isolated from predators for some time.

For instance, island populations of Sitka black-tailed deer isolated from predators for 60 years showed a similar level of vigilance to deer exposed to predators.

But there is some evidence that individuals that are bold around humans may also be bold around their predators. For instance, fox squirrels from a population habituated to human presence responded less to different predator noises than individuals from the non-habituated population.

Fox squirrels that are used to having humans around are less responsive to predators. Is this true for other species, too?
mandj98/flickr, CC BY-NC

Animals learn responses to their environment that can form predictable behavioural patterns. Such a pattern may, for example, link docility with a reduced response to predators. In this way, docile animals may respond inappropriately in the presence of a predator.

So if tourism-related human shields are sufficiently stable to make animals more tolerant towards humans, and if by being exposed to humans animals become more docile or excessively bold, these individuals may be more vulnerable when exposed to real predators.

What next?

Our paper is a call for more research on this important issue. Indeed, the journal we published in routinely publishes papers that seek to stimulate new work in this area and we listed a number of examples of needed studies in our review.

While UNESCO has guidelines for ecotourism, they do not address the issues we identified. We need to understand the factors and conditions under which human shields arise and their effects on wildlife behaviour. Armed with data from many species from different locations and studied under varied conditions, we will be better able to provide concrete management recommendations to wildlife managers.

Nevertheless, four such likely recommendations are to:

  • Create zones for governing visits in natural areas (as is done in many areas already, like the Galapagos).

  • Enforce times where natural areas are closed off to humans (as for hunting).

  • Avoid contact with humans in places where there are pups and juveniles (if, as we suspect, early contact with humans may enhance docility in wild animals).

  • Reduce or eliminate feeding of wildlife by tourist operators and guides (a common practice in a number of “ecotourist” venues).

To tour, or not to tour

So, is ecotourism a good thing or a bad thing? It depends.

In many developing countries, people must choose between consuming natural resources or creating another viable economy. Often, nature-based tourism and ecotourism creates unique economic opportunities. Here any increased predation costs of ecotourism will pale in comparison to the benefits this industry can bring.

However, when dealing with small and vulnerable populations, or when dealing with nature-based tourism in more developed countries, perhaps any excess predation is less acceptable.

We believe that ecotourists, who travel to help communities and biodiversity, will be those most open to self-regulation, if required, to better preserve local wildlife. We hope that the research our review stimulates will help provide the information and tools to improve the benefits of ecotourism, while eliminating or reducing the negative impacts. Time will tell and we’re excited to learn more.

The Conversation

Daniel Blumstein, Professor and chair for the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles; Benjamin Geffroy, Postdoctoral Fellow, Institut Nationale de Recherche Agronomique (INRA) – Université Paris Saclay; Diogo Samia, Postdoctoral Fellow, Universidade de Sao Paulo, and Eduardo Bessa, Professor of Zoology, Universidade do Estado de Mato Grosso

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.