Banking on nature

15/10/2009 - 00:00

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The tourism industry needs the government to commit to a new accommodation program.

Banking on nature

THE state government's nature-based accommodation program launched last week bears a number of similarities to the existing Landbank initiative, which has been criticised by many in the industry for its failure to deliver results.

Tourism Minister Liz Constable and Environment Minister Donna Faragher jointly launched the Naturebank program, which is focused on developing eco-tourism experiences through the release of land for low-impact accommodation, mostly within national parks and reserves.

The program aims to identify potential visitor accommodation sites and undertake due diligence required to make sites ready for release.

Tourism Western Australia's Landbank program was introduced by the former Labor government in 2005 to fast-track accommodation developments by presenting investor-ready parcels of land to developers.

While Landbank was designed to streamline approval processes to release urban development sites in key locations, to date, none of the sites has progressed to the development stage.

Most notably, plans for a hotel on Rottnest Island's Mt Herschel were scrapped in March 2009 after the Broadwater consortium and the Rottnest Island Authority failed to reach an agreement almost two years after the consortium was chosen as the preferred proponent to develop the site.

Australia's North West chairman Ian Laurance told a recent WA Business News roundtable forum that the failure to construct the hotel prior to the global financial crisis was a "disgrace".

“It should've been built by then, by the time the crisis came in the banking world that (Mt Herschel hotel) should've been built," Mr Laurance said.

Other potential accommodation sites in the Landbank program included Tom Price and Denham, which were released in June and September 2007 respectively, but neither has progressed.

Landbank is a failure," Mr Laurance said.

“Where it went wrong, in the government's own words, it said these properties had been selected as sites for rapid development and they were meant to be 'investment-ready'; nothing could be further from the truth."

Mr Laurance recognises the potential of eco-based accommodation facilities across WA, particularly in the north-west as Broome's Eco Beach has shown, and is hopeful Naturebank will succeed where Landbank has not, assuming the government makes a real commitment to making it happen.

“Often governments come up with brilliant schemes, and as a business person you try to access those schemes, but you find that government agencies aren't prepared to be commercial," Mr Laurance said.

“They [the government] blame developers for not proceeding but often it's because the negotiations aren't commercial."

Mr Laurance, who is also a former state tourism minister, is not alone in his skepticism of the government's commitment to the new program.

Opposition tourism spokesperson Ljilianna Ravlich welcomed the initiative but pointed out potential weaknesses in the program, including start-up funding and environmental impact.

“The Naturebank program will ... offer no additional funding to assist operators in setting up the facilities," Ms Ravlich said.

“It does not offer genuine government support for the tourism industry.

“The Barnett government will cut $10 million from the tourism budget over the next four years and the announcement is no more than a table scrap for an industry that finds itself in hard times.

“We do not want this scheme to pave the way for major resort developments in national parks."

Tourism WA acting executive director industry development, Rick Thomas, defended Landbank, suggesting the program had not failed.

“The intent of the (Landbank) initiative is sound but as unrealistic expectations and insufficient support and funding were provided by the previous government, the current program now aims to release sites according to current resources," Mr Thomas said.

“Naturebank differs from Landbank in that it is primarily focused on utilising areas of national parks in partnership with the Department of Environment and Conservation."

Expressions of interest to develop the first site at Kurrajong within the Purnululu National Park will be sought before the end of the year, with a second site expected to be released early in 2010.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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