Importance of Triple Bottom Line Sustainability – Interview With CEO of Ecotourism Australia

Recently, I had an opportunity to pose some questions to Kym Cheatham, CEO of Ecotourism Australia, which is a non-profit organization that is Australia’s main ecotourism industry association. Here, she shares some great perspective on the importance of maintaining high ecotourism standards and encouraging triple bottom line sustainability. 

Describe the political, social, environmental and/or economic circumstances that led to the development of Ecotourism Australia 20 years ago.
Ecotourism Australia was formed at Australia’s first Ecotourism Conference in 1991 which was held at the University of Queensland. The Australian tourism industry had recognized that Australia’s unique natural attractions were integral to our attraction to international visitors and that it was important that the industry worked together to ensure we protected and presented our natural assets in the best way possible. The formation of Ecotourism Australia (then known as the Ecotourism Association of Australia) was driven by tourism operators, government and academia collectively. No doubt, the fact the TIES had started the year earlier also acted as a catalyst.

Describe the most surprising (or perhaps misunderstood) facet of ecotourism.

I have several …:
  1. For many people now ECO means anything environmental – for us ecotourism is all about a tourism experience based on nature. However not all nature tourism is ecotourism.
  2. Ecotourism certification is based on triple bottom line sustainability not just environmentally sustainability. So, tourism operators need to run good businesses and also be socially and culturally
    sustainable as well.
  3. Ecotourism includes interpretation and conservation as well as good environmental management – these experiences should help visitor appreciate and value the nature, and the tourism operators should contribute to ongoing conservation activities.
  4. The thing that most surprises me (and shouldn’t) is that most government marketing bodies still treat ecotourism as a niche’ and special interest, when nature (and all the research supports this), along with Aboriginal culture, clearly provide the experiences that differentiate Australia and provide a compelling reason to visit Australia. Australia’s nature and traditional culture are what sets us apart from the rest of the world.
Describe how your organization has promoted the need for certification.
Ecotourism Australia has been running ECO certification for 15 years – our program was the first in the world. We promote certification through working with Protected Area Managers to recognize and reward the tourism operators who have achieved ECO certification. In Australia now, ECO certification is recognized by the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority and most of the State based government managers of National Parks who are responsible for issuing licenses and permits.
We also market to the tourism distribution channels and the consumer. We attend a number of trade and consumer shows a year, produce an electronic and environmentally friendly Green Travel Guide annually, work with travel companies to get the logos published in brochures and online travel website, as well as working with media to get the story out and try and inform the consumer.

In the last two years, we have introduced two ‘sub-brands’ to try and create some additional promotion. Green Travel Leaders are tourism companies who have been ECO certified for 10 or more years and Eco Lodges of Australia is a membership-based collection of Advanced Ecotourism certified accommodation. 

Describe what tourism companies learn the most by going through your certification process.
Overall it gives them practical criteria to improve the sustainability of their operation. Some learn from the ground up – how to write an environmental management plan, how to write an interpretation plan and how to implement those plans. For others, because its triple bottom line sustainability, they learn how to improve the ongoing management of their business.

Here are some operators’ comments:

  • Certification provides an excellent framework to help you improve your business operations, achieve more sustainable goals and deliver a better customer experience. It is an ongoing partnership that helps you maintain a better business and help create a better world. – Christopher Warren, Proprietor, Crystal Creek Meadows, Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales (above, left picture)
  • Eco Certification not only helped us formalise our practices but also provided an excellent baseline to measure continued improvements, as well as helping to create realistic performance targets for the future. – Tony Baker, CEO, Quicksilver Cruises, Great Barrier Reef (above, right picture)
Describe an example of a community that chose to promote (certified) ecotourism over (typical) mass tourism and how Ecotourism Australia helped them achieve their goals.
Great Barrier Reef tourism alone brings in more than AUD $5b annually. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), working with the Marine Tourism Operators, developed the High Standard Operators program, which involves offering ECO certified tourism operators extended access permits. The GBRMPA has developed benefits to both reward high standard operators and provide incentives for other operators to improve their performance. Currently, more than 50 percent of all visitors to the reef are carried by a High Standard Operator. These operators also actively participate in volunteer conservation activities with GBRMPA including Eye on the Reef and BleachWatch and GBRMPA actively markets these operators with Ecotourism Australia and directly.
Click for more information on the High Standard Operators program.

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