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Articles reproduced here come from past Rottnest Society Newsletters and other documents up to 2005.

What is eco-tourism?

 (Reprinted from our March 2005 Newsletter)

Although we are assured that this is not immediately on the horizon the recommendation by the Rottnest Island Taskforce that the RIA investigate the feasibility of a 150-room ‘low-impact eco-tourism’ development between the Army Jetty and the North Thompson Bay settlement needs to be considered and discussed by the Society because eventually we and the (general public) will be asked to comment on it.  Our committee members need to be informing ourselves, as do our members, for the time when this recommendation is implemented.  Quite apart from the question of whether Rottnest needs such a development in order to be economically sustainable there is the question of just what ‘eco-tourism’ means in relation to Rottnest, and indeed what ‘low-impact’ means.  A search of the internet reveals that many resorts and developments, both small and large, within Australia carry a label of ‘eco-tourism’ somewhere in their promotional information but apart from being located in or close to bush, beach or river it is difficult to see which part of their operation qualifies them for such a label.  There are also some operators which appear to have developed businesses for which they have seriously attempted to use ecologically sustainable practices in such areas as building design and location on the site, power and water supply, and their treatment of waste water and sewage.  Many of the developments promoting themselves as ‘eco-tourism’ seem to be very small seem – sometimes only several units, each relatively isolated from others.  Then there are developments such as Couran Cove – a very much larger, and more luxurious, development which nevertheless has apparently utilised ecologically sustainable technology for water collection and treatment, waste water treatment and so on.  Couran Cove also says that it encourages its visitors to monitor their own energy use – and is set up to allow this to happen.

What gives a business the right to give itself the label of ‘eco-tourism’ in Australia?  There is a certification programme provided by Ecotourism Australia (although it appears that certification is provided on the basis of an application form completed by the business and it does not appear that inspection by Ecotourism Australia is necessary).

From their website we find that the definition adopted by Ecotourism Australia is: "Ecotourism is ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation".

According to the website their Eco Certification Program is a world first. “It has been developed by industry for industry, addressing the need to identify genuine ecotourism and nature tourism operators in Australia. The Eco Certification Program is now being exported to the rest of the world as the International Ecotourism Standard.  Ecotourism and nature tourism certification provide industry, protected area managers, local communities and travelers with an assurance that a certified product is backed by a commitment to best practice ecological sustainability, natural area management and the provision of quality ecotourism experiences.  The Eco Certification Program accredits products not companies. Three types of nature tourism or ecotourism product may be accredited: Tours, Attractions and Accommodation”.

From a table on the website we find that triple bottom line guidelines are used.  Under Economic Sustainability are listed the categories 1.Business Management and Operational Planning  2.Business Ethics 3.Responsible Marketing  and  4.Customer Satisfaction.  Under Environmental Sustainability we find  5.Natural Area Focus  6.Environmental Sustainability  7.Interpretation and Education and  8. Contribution to Conservation and under Social Responsibility is  9.Working with Local Communities  and 10.Cultural Respect and Sensitivity.

And a note tells us that “each of the above principles is reflected in specific assessment criteria that establish two categories of certification: Nature Tourism and Ecotourism. Ecotourism certification has two levels Ecotourism and Advanced Ecotourism. Each level of certification incorporates a more stringent set of assessment criteria. The criteria for Advanced Ecotourism also encourage and reward innovative best practice that exceeds the Eco Certification Program standards”.  (Note the requirements of items 7-10.  They demand more than simply building ecologically sustainable buildings - Ed).

There is a very comprehensive application form available for businesses to complete on this website (which we had trouble downloading but which will be worth future study).  However we can see that there appears to be a serious effort by industry to provide a mechanism by which ‘eco-tourism’ operations can be judged – and this ties in with world-wide efforts in a similar vein.  This is a recognition that there is an increasing demand for ‘ecotourism’ experiences and that many businesses have attempted to capitalise on this market without actually earning the right to do so – thus the move towards self-regulation by this section of the tourist industry.

In relation to Rottnest there are many issues which will need to be addressed.  In terms of Environmental Sustainability a very brief list at this point would certainly include power generation and water supply for up to 150 extra guest rooms (would these be 2-person rooms or family rooms?) and for the extra staff required to service them (how many?).  Then there is the quite significant increase in the number of toilets required (possibly a 33% increase over the number presently on the island) and the treatment and disposal of waste from these toilets in a manner that did not exacerbate the already difficult position on the island.  Passive solar building design principles should as a matter of course be incorporated in any new building at Rottnest as should rainwater collection and treatment and reuse of grey water.  And the use of solar energy should be seriously investigated.  Air-conditioning should not be allowed.

Then there is the matter of the scale of a 150-room development and the manner in which it would fit into the landscape without overwhelming the existing settlement – the existing hotel has just 18 rooms and the website for the Lodge says that it has 80 rooms.   Is it possible for such a development to be out of sight behind the sand dune as has been suggested earlier by Taskforce members?  Would it occupy both sides of the road to Kingstown?  A look at an aerial photo of the island suggests that it would have to, so it could mean loss of some of the old-growth melaleuca on the inland side of the road (Society members would not be very happy about that given the large effort that we put in planting melaleuca seedlings each year).  Although the trees closest to this road are mostly exotic species the aerial view suggests that this stand of melaleucas is one of the most significant of the few remaining old-growth stands on the island.

In terms of Social Sustainability a major concern for the Society (and we have written about this before) is the possible impact of such a development on the essential ‘Rottnest experience’ that so many people value so highly.  It is reasonable to assume that there is likely to be a flow-on effect in demand for extra facilities and services by the users of such a development – for example perhaps a demand for more restaurants as these would be people who are not self-catering.  Could the existing restaurants cater for an extra 300-350 people on summer nights?  If more restaurants were required this would create more pressure to get even more people to the island in the quieter months to assist with viability of these businesses - to say nothing of the Economic Sustainability of the development itself over winter months.  Would the people using such a development demand more or higher quality facilities and services on the island?  One of the great things about Rottnest is that it is not a shopper’s paradise – it is definitely not the place you go to if you like to spend your holidays shopping.   

Note: it should be understood that this article is not prompted by any recent discussion on this matter with the RIA or anyone else – rather it is simply an attempt to foster discussion on the matter.  Neither should it be read as acceptance by the Rottnest Society of the necessity for, or the inevitability of such a development.