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Tapping in to eco-tourism’s potential

ECO-TOURISM was one of the great buzzwords of the 1980s and among the more memorable election promises of the new State Government.

While eco-tourism may seem to be a relatively inexpensive way to lure tourists to WA – after all, the attractions have already been built for free, care of Mother Nature – exploiting natural wonders takes time and money, both in building facilities and promoting areas.

The Government is responsible for the sustainable growth of the tourism industry by way of increasing the flow of tourism and investment. Moreover, this role is the domain of the WA Tourism Commission (WATC), so it’s little wonder that eco-tourism, perhaps the greatest area of potential tourism growth, was one of the prime election promises of (now) Premier Gallop’s team.

“The target is to develop Western Australia into one of the world’s premier eco-tourism destinations by 2010, generating $500 million annually and employing 5000 people,” Tourism Minister Clive Brown said.

Election promises ranged from undertaking a major marketing campaign to promote eco-tourism in WA, to spending $1 million on a Karri-Tingle Discovery Centre, to recommending the Ningaloo marine park and the Walpole wilderness areas be added to the World Heritage list.

With all the enthusiasm of a newly elected government, the ALP has stared targeting several areas, including the establishment of a dedicated Environmental Tourism Unit with a $250,000 annual budget (public advertisements calling for expressions of interest recently listed), and committing the promised $1 million for the Karri-Tingle centre.

There’s a vast variety of potential eco-tourism hot spots sprinkled throughout WA and hitting the obvious first seems to be the plan.

Whale watching has for several years been an area of interest for tourists and, to this end, the South Coast Whalewatch program is listed among the three new pilot projects the WATC hopes to launch this year.

“The South Coast Whalewatch is a program that will let visitors monitor hump and southern right whale movements along the Albany coastline,” Mr Brown said.

South West Minister Jim McGinty recently handed over almost half a million dollars to boost efforts to preserve Busselton’s historic jetty. The money will help the Busselton Jetty Preservation Committee with its repair work and plans to build a $2.5 million underwater observatory.

“This funding will further their efforts and help secure the underwater observatory for the jetty, making it a significant eco-tourism attraction for Busselton and the South West,” Mr McGinty said.

“The jetty is already attracting 200,000 people a year and an observatory would significantly boost tourism by local, national and international visitors.”

The Tree Top Walk at Walpole has already shown itself to be a popular tourist destination and planned areas of new national park are part of the Government’s efforts to further increase tourism in the area.

The proposed Walpole Wilderness Area covers more than 360,000 hectares and comprises four proposed new national parks and three existing national parks – the Shannon, Walpole-Nornalup and Mt Frankland national parks.

“There is no doubt that eco-tourism is a rapidly growing tourism market and sympathetic developments such as these will encourage more visitors to Western Australia and the Great Southern region in particular,” Premier Gallop said.

“The creation of the Walpole Wilderness Area will open up new opportunities for eco-tourism activities in our old-growth forests.

“The Government will encourage the establishment of low-impact visitor attractions such as walk and cycle trails, canoeing facilities along the Deep River, picnic areas and low-level camping and cabin accommodation.”

The WATC’s relatively small budget for promoting the State may make marketing all of WA’s wonders a difficult task.

Still, the vigour with which the Government’s four-year eco-tourism plan has begun may give hope to tourism industry business and representative bodies, including the new Tourism Council of Western Australia (TCWA), that more money for marketing will be forthcoming in the next financial year.

TCWA president Laurie O’Meare is adamant that what WA tourism really needs is “marketing, marketing, marketing”.

The Abrolhos Islands also have received a hit from the Government with plans under way to open up the 122 low-lying islands and reefs 60 kilometres off the coast of Geraldton for managed tourism.

Fisheries Minister Kim Chance recently released the Management Plan for Sustainable Tourism in the Islands, which he said had been devised to provide a framework through which tourism could be developed on the islands in a form consistent with the protection of the natural and cultural values of the Abrolhos.

“The basic thrust of this plan is to encourage environmentally sensitive tourism or nature-based tourism which is compatible with maintaining the Abrolhos system in ecologically sound condition,” Mr Chance said.

He said the Fisheries Department also would support various commercial tourism ventures, including charter boats and accommodation.

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