As the world takes action to confront the looming threat of climate change, the Australian tourism industry is gearing up for a paradigm shift to greener travel options. With regenerative and sustainable tourism increasingly on the industry agenda, experts foresee a mix of government regulation and incentivisation is on the cards to shepherd the green transformation in the sector and future-proof the industry.
Board director Liz Savage has worked in the travel and tourism field for more than 20 years and she says increasing consumer demand for eco-alternatives is an important driver of this inevitable transformation. “We’ve moved from a world in tourism where visitors weren’t too worried about their impact a while ago, to a space where people now think ‘leave no trace’,” she says. “I think travellers in general are becoming a lot more aware of their impact and wanting assurance that it’s a positive one.”
Savage sees new standards emerging in the sector, driven by the increasing numbers of consumers who want to do more than simply avoid leaving any eco-damage, they want to have a positive impact and contribute to the overall ecological well-being when they visit a place or take part in an experience.
Leading the field in Australia, she says, is Queensland and particularly the region of far north Queensland, which has been forced to work harder than most tourist destinations because the simple act of getting there – nearly always by long-haul flight – entails leaving a substantial carbon footprint.
At the intersection of two fragile and under-stress environments – the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree rainforest – the world-famous region requires special care and it is an important responsibility for everyone who operates in the area’s tourist sector, Savage says.
A number of local operators are rising to the challenge. The local industry body, Tourism Tropical North Queensland, helps visitors enjoy the region in a “sustainable, light-touch” way, Savage says, by pointing to particular products and experiences that are eco-certified.
At the same time, the sheer beauty of the region provides an unseen and automatic safeguard, she believes. “I see tourism as quite a natural guardian in many ways because if the environment isn’t maintained and isn’t beautiful, they won’t have a business for very long,” she says. “They have a natural incentive to help be part of the solution to look after the environment.”
Ten or twenty years ago, tourists rarely thought about the environmental and social impact they had on the destinations they visited. Now tourists of all kinds, and particularly younger tourists, are increasingly concerned about both climate and social issues, Savage says, a concern which she believes translates to travel spend.
After a three-year battering by Covid and the consequent travel restrictions, the travel and tourism sector in Australia is now bracing for a wholesale eco-revamp which might take years to fully achieve, but the nation is close to point where increasing demand means tourism operators will have to offer green alternatives.
“I think we’re close, I really do think we’re reaching that tipping point,” Savage says. “Something happened during Covid to our collective psyche, where there’s great demand to get out and to experience natural environments, to do things in a really authentic way, to connect with places. But I think people are also equally more aware than ever that in doing so and going to these amazing natural places, or culturally sensitive places, they also have impact and therefore they’re looking for ways to do it that are low-impact or positive impact.”
Comprehensive auditing and certification systems provide tourists with reassurance their travel choices have not been ‘green-washed’ or held up to be more sustainable than they really are. The not-for-profit non-government organisation Ecotourism Australia is making a mark in his field, Savage says, and the Queensland government is funding ecotourism grants to help destinations and businesses pay for independent audits and independent certification.
“If we get it right, it leads to a more loyal customer base, it leads to better referrals, it potentially leads to premium products as well,” she says. “People are prepared to pay a little bit more for something they know is responsible, or regenerative or having that positive impact.”
Eco-changes in the tourism sector range from changing the provision of individual plastic packed in-room hotel beauty products to bulk offerings, already underway in most hotel chains, to considering how best to implement a system-wide upgrade of the petrol and diesel motors used in transport vehicles to sustainable electric or hydrogen engines.
“Longer term investments aren’t going to happen overnight,” Savage says. “Like any transition, whether it’s energy we’re looking at, or other operations, it does take investment over time to change the product.”
She has not seen any active resistance to the green overhaul in the travel and tourism sector, but she has noticed some caution concerning the substantial investment required to upgrade products to meet sustainable and regenerative tourism expectations.
“It’s an investment people have to make and it’s sometimes a bit of a leap of faith,” she says. “But I think there has been enough of a demonstration now that the market is moving that way and it’s moving fast.”
With a range of operators ranging from mammoth international hotel and travel chains to small mum-and-dad holiday rentals, the tourism industry resists one-size-fits-all categorisation, but there are some commonly-held green trends.
“There’s as much good going on at the family business end of things where they’re really in tune with the environment, as with the big corporates,” Savage says. “Our tourism industry has a lot of big players in it, but it also has a very long tail of smaller local family businesses. It’s that sort of authentic local experience that people are seeking out and that side of the industry is changing fast, which is great.”