11/02/2015 - 05:03

Tourism puzzle missing pieces

11/02/2015 - 05:03

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Preparing for the projected growth in nature-based tourism requires strategic planning and consultation.

Tourism puzzle missing pieces
OPPORTUNITY: WA has many natural wonders to showcase.

Western Australia has a wealth of natural beauty and unique landscapes in its national parks, state forests and marine reserves. This, combined with growing international demand for nature-based tourism, should present a strong economic opportunity for the state.

By and large, however, the economic and social value of the state's natural assets for tourism is not being realised. Road access to many sites is poor, public amenities are often basic and there is little in the way of high-quality accommodation to attract the discerning ecotourist or outdoor adventurer.

Future demand for ecotourism, or more broadly nature-based tourism, is expected to be particularly strong, primarily due to increasing incomes in emerging Asian markets.

In addition to the economic benefits of tourism, nature-based tourism can also raise awareness about the importance of conservation, indigenous culture and sustainable management of natural areas. Moreover, visitor fees and other revenue streams from commercial tourism ventures in protected areas can provide an important source of funding for conservation and park management.

But not everyone agrees that benefits of nature-based tourism can outweigh the costs imposed by human impacts. This is where the challenge for government begins.

What's needed is a policy framework to assist WA leverage greater value from its natural assets and facilitate the development of a sustainable (financially and environmentally) industry.

The policy framework I would propose is based on six principles:

• a regulatory process and culture in government that is open to innovative tourism offerings and meet conservation outcomes in natural areas;

• an approvals process that establishes clear and accountable processes for allowing ecotourism ventures to operate in protected areas;

• adequate security of tenure through long-term leases, subject to private operators meeting the terms and conditions of the lease;

• a sound pricing mechanism to allow the state to earn an appropriate return for providing the opportunity to use natural assets for commercial purposes – for example lease payments for use of land, facilities, or management services in state-owned parks;

• a tender system for evaluating expressions of interest from the private sector to operate ecotourism ventures in protected areas, while ensuring adequate protections to intellectual property; and

• a mechanism to promote market-driven selection of sites and tourism offerings, as opposed to the government 'picking winners'.

WA has already adopted some of these principles. For example, the 2006 Review of Nature-Based Tourism resulted in legislative changes that made provision for longer duration licences for operators. In 2009, the government launched Naturebank. Under this initiative, the government assesses and releases 'investor-ready' land in the state's protected areas for low-impact visitor accommodation (safari camps or wilderness lodges).

Naturebank has resulted in several ecotourism ventures being established in national parks, however I understand that uptake by the private sector has been less than expected. This may be due partly to lack of investment confidence post global financial crisis; or it could be that the selected sites do not represent a sufficiently strong value proposition.

Instead of assisting with site selection, government may need to focus more attention on reducing red tape, such as protracted planning approval processes, restrictive licensing arrangements, heavy monitoring and compliance burdens, and in some cases insufficient certainty for businesses about tenure.

Consideration should also be given to instances where it may be more efficient for the private sector to deliver certain management and conservation services in protected areas, instead of government (or in partnership with government). This might require government to make payments to the concessionaire for 'public good' outcomes.

New Zealand's approach, which has adopted a strategy of promoting conservation outcomes through partnerships with business, is a model worth considering.

If the demand for nature-based tourism continues to grow, as projected, WA should make more use of its natural assets. This will call for a strategic, principled approach and will require greater use of public-private partnerships as a means of delivering enhanced visitor experiences in natural areas, better quality accommodation and opportunities for increased private investment in conservation.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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