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Australia Defines Nature-Friendly Tours

The ecotourism industry here adopts the toughest self-regulation in the world, with a little government help

If you want to get up close and personal with a dingo, you might want to try Fraser Island.

Unlike the vicious predators on the mainland, the dingoes on this vast sandy island off the coast of Queensland, Australia, are relatively docile. Many daytime tourists who disregard "no feeding" signs treat the wild dogs more like tame squirrels, tossing them unwanted bits of sandwiches and fruit from their picnic lunches.

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The thousands of humans who come to Fraser, the world's largest sand island, are part of a growing worldwide trend of ecologically conscious tourists.

Ecotourism is growing rapidly in Australia - a country almost as large as the continental United States - placing tremendous strain on the environmental treasures that draw these tourists.

As more ecotourist resorts open to meet growing demand, the Ecotourism Association of Australia (EAA) is beginning to raise its criteria for accreditation to make sure hotel operations live up to their ecologically correct reputation.

With about 600 operators, the flourishing ecotourism industry here is estimated to be about $250 million annually, says the EAA. But as the industry grows, Australians are demanding the nation's natural assets be protected and sustainably managed.

This push for greater integrity and accountability across the industry has prompted the federal government to take action. A new government-funded accreditation system, the first of its kind in the world, was instituted in February. This system will ensure that in the future only operators who have been accredited by the EAA will be allowed to market their sites as an ecotourist attraction.

From mining to ecotourism

About 20 years ago, Fraser Island was at the center of mining and logging controversies. But now it hosts one of Australia's finest ecotourist resorts.

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At the Kingfisher Bay Resort, trained guides escort tourists to see at close range enormous natural sandblows (sand mountains), whales, frogs, bats, and an endless array of native flora and bird life, as well as the dingoes.

As they approach Fraser Island by ferry from the mainland, the first thing tourists notice about the resort is that it is almost impossible to spot from a distance.

Its specially designed architecture "blends harmoniously" into the environment. Built so that it has minimal impact on the ecology of the environment, this multi-award-winning resort nestles into the surrounding 1,000-year-old rain forest. It is also energy efficient, using only 15 percent of the power consumed by a conventional hotel.

The money saved on energy is channeled into various programs: self-guided interpretive trails and daily morning-and-evening ranger-guided walks for everything from bird watching to bat spotting and possum spotlighting.

What is ecotourism?

The EAA defines ecotourism as "ecologically sustainable tourism that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation, and conservation." But until now, Australian operators have had no pressure on them to be either ecologically sustainable or to provide a genuine ecotourist product.

Jennie Orchard, a freelance editor in Sydney, says she and her family have had experience with two "ecotourist" resorts, and in both cases, she says, the label was misused. Mrs. Orchard says these resorts use the ecotourism label as a "convenient mask" to justify cutting corners, with no corresponding benefits to the tourist.

"They economized on towels and laundry and did not provide a TV in each room. But then they had a games room where the children had to pay for their own entertainment. Is there an environmental reason for not having a television in every room?" she asks.

As a result of 30 years of environmental education in the Australian school system, says Tony Charters, the president of the EAA, Australians have a sophisticated awareness of what an ecotour should provide.

The Fraser Island resort, he says, represents just one operator's attempt to tap into this shift in demand by a well-educated and high-spending public, providing a product that meets their expectations of sustainably managed natural assets.

Mr. Charters says the EAA's new accreditation system will protect the tourist and the environment. But in particular, it will protect the credibility of the industry.

"We hope it will achieve higher standards ... and that [the resorts] will be recognized by their quality.... These standards are not always more expensive, and in many cases genuine savings can be made in the long term. Therefore, some of the operators who are currently misusing the ecotourism label will hopefully abandon the label. We expect others will make the necessary changes to conform to the regulatory standards," he says.

Incentives to get accredited

For many small operators, this accreditation system will mean yet another cost. But Charters says there will be a financial incentives to obtain accreditation.

"There will be market advantages for operators who get accreditation, particularly in lucrative markets like Germany, where there is a high awareness of environmental issues and high demand for ecotourism," he says.

While some countries have codes of conduct in this area, this is the most comprehensive plan in the world, Charters says. Besides making Australia a world leader in the field, the idea of national accreditation can be exported, he hopes.

Shirley LaPlanche, who has published a comprehensive guide on ecotourism in Australia ("Stepping Lightly on Australia," HarperCollins), supports the accreditation system, albeit with some reservations.

"I think it is good, but there are a lot of people in the industry who are not good ecotour operators, and because this program is self-regulatory, the operators need to be checked on a yearly basis," she says. "This is particularly important where a company changes hands or there is a shift in format to meet the local demand. It's a protection so long as it's well-monitored," Ms. LaPlanche says.

Commissioned by the federal government in 1991 to conduct a six-month survey on the emerging industry, when "anyone who had a four-wheel-drive was calling themselves an ecotour," LaPlanche has been involved in the industry from its inception. She says regulation is vital in Australia because there is a wealth of unspoiled natural assets.

The government, she says, has played a crucial role in getting the industry to its current groundbreaking position. "The government has spent $10 million to create a national strategy for the protection of both the tourist and the environment, including the A$60,000 [US$46,000] tagged for the setting up of the accreditation system. There has been a genuine attempt to get it right," she says.

The essence of ecotourism, Charters says, is to provide tourists with a unique and unforgettable natural or cultural experience. The accreditation plan, he says, seeks to underpin the basic elements of the industry.

"Ecotourism should provide experience of authentic environments, either nature-based or culture-based," he says. "They should offer a unique experience while providing accurate information about the environment, including why the area is different from other areas.

"Ecotourist resorts should position themselves with a totally different product, with different architecture, food, and recreation facilities. They should be the antithesis to conventional top-level hotels, which, in many cases, only compete on price and position but are identical once you get inside."

Regulating Standards

Accreditation will require the accommodation, tour, or attraction to:

* Focus on greater understanding and appreciation of natural areas.

* Include opportunities to understand natural areas.

* Represent best practice for ecologically sustainable tourism.

* Productively contribute to local communities and conservation of natural areas.

* Interpret sensitively different cultures.

* Consistently meet client expectations.

* Market accurately and realistically.

Source: Ecotourism Association of Australia

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