Sustainable tourism? Preserving ecological diversity and sense of place

Main Beach, Byron Bay.

by David Lowe, 

At Destination Byron’s recent Sustainability in Tourism event, held at the Byron Community Centre, a large audience listened to representatives from Council and the founder and CEO of EarthCheck, Stewart Moore, explore the possibilities of a sustainable future for tourism in our region, which now has over 2 million visitors annually.

Moore said there were 25 million travellers around the globe in 1950. Today there are 1.6 billion, and in 2030 there are expected to be 2 billion. Managing so many people without destroying the environments and communities that travellers are visiting is a major challenge. EarthCheck assists this process by providing certification and advice to destinations as diverse as Iceland, Mexico, the Caribbean and New Zealand.

Spreading the load

Moore says, ‘The business of sustainability is to deliver bottom-line outcomes and delight guests’. He sees dispersal as the biggest issue, with 80 per cent of global visitors going to 20 per cent of global locations.

Visitor peaks have to be spread through the year. Destinations need to work out what they want to achieve in sustainability terms, make a plan, and then measure their progress.

Moore drew attention to the tourism hotspot of west Iceland, which has managed to increase visitor numbers while decreasing potable water use. Iceland’s responsible tourist pledge includes lines like: ‘I will take photos to die for without dying for them’ and ‘I will follow the road into the unknown, but never venture off the road’.

Are we full yet?

Local slow tourism advocate Alison Drover believes there are good examples closer to home, including in Shoalhaven: ‘Last year the council decided to turn tourists away from the whitest beach, Hyams Beach, and blocked it to drivers. They said ‘we’re full, we can’t take more capacity”, because their road was getting 3,000 to 5,000 cars. That was important for safeguarding the environment, but also for public risk and safety.’

Destination Byron President David Jones says he’s a strong advocate for reflection and data when it comes to tourism’s future in the Shire. ‘Byron is very busy,’ he said, ‘but half the busyness is day visitors. They’re not staying here, and they’re contributing almost nothing to the economy – other than traffic.’

Of the people who do stay overnight, Airbnb is the only area of real growth, with all its associated impacts.

Cape Byron Lighthouse, VisitNSW.com

A carbonless future

Clearly climate change will bring major challenges to the tourism sector. Stewart Moore says carbon constraints are coming, ‘flight shame’ is a growing phenomenon, and the carbon footprint of tourism has to shrink.

Moore is a big advocate for recording accurate statistics about energy, water and visitor numbers: ‘what gets measured gets managed.’

According to Alison Drover we have focused all our tourism on beaches. The irony of it is the irukandji [extremely venomous species of box jellyfish] are moving down the coast. If things really do heat up, and we have scorching sun and changing conditions in the water, who’s to say we (should be) putting all our emphasis around the ocean, when we might be designing experiences around agri-tourism or experiences like learning a skill?’

Connections

Stewart Moore says the experience economy is growing fast, and what travellers are really looking for is emotional connections and stories. ‘You know you’re on the right track when your visitors become your ambassadors.’ He says destinations need to set themselves apart, and sustainability innovations are a great way to do that, while also providing wins for local communities.

Moore sees particular opportunities for Byron Bay to build on its wellness and indigenous cultural tourism strengths – both sectors with strong connections to sustainability. The high-end luxury market is also ‘asking ethical questions.’

Alison Drover says, ‘People are looking for deeper experiences rather than quick fixes. We need to think slow above all. What is key at the moment is authenticity with brands. You need to be seen to be walking the walk.’

She uses the example of Broken Head Nature Reserve. ‘If you go up that road it looks like it’s been trashed, there is rubbish throughout it now, you hardly ever see a ranger. Why would people treat it with anything other than disrespect? At what point with hotter summers is there going to be a fire?

‘At a more holistic level, these bodies like Destination NSW, they need to be engaged, because they are the culprits, so to speak. Instead of promoting areas willy nilly in their marketing messaging and campaigns, they need to seed messages of “protect and respect Byron”, to help to communicate that you’re coming to a place that is actually quite significant ecologically. Tourists value that.’

How not to ‘sellout’?

According to Destination Byron’s David Jones, ‘The Shire perfected the art of saying no back in the ‘70s, and has said no ever since to pretty much everything, and that’s sort of protected it, and made it this very multicultural timewarp of a destination. And that’s why it’s got so much going for it.

‘It never sold out. It doesn’t have big towers or theme parks or hundred-year leases on all of its prime land, it didn’t sell out to the traveller dollar. But there’s too much hate in the Shire to get anything done!’
Council Tourism Officers Sarah Workman and Lisa Richards closed the Sustainability in Tourism event by mentioning a number of campaigns Council are promoting, including Plastic-Free Byron, Take 3 for the Sea, and Sunspot, which is about to launch.

After a year’s work and consultation, the draft Sustainable Visitation Strategy for Byron Shire will be considered by Council at its December 2019 meeting and the strategy will go on public exhibition in February 2020.

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