Bruce Poon Tip star_rsAs promised, Bruce Poon Tip — interviewed here — has returned for a Back in a Bit guest post on Tourism Australia and eco-tourism.

Founder of Gap Adventures, Bruce Poon Tip, writes: Being invited to speak recently at the Global Eco Conference in Noosa had the added attraction of letting me visit a part of the world I’d never been to before.

With a focus on indigenous tourism they certainly put me to work with three keynotes, two panels and a lunch meeting with Tourism Noosa. The people at Ecotourism Australia, who ran the event, are bound together by their passion for what they do and the fact they are outliers from the mainstream tourism which is very dominant in Australia.  There were many things that surprised me about this conference but none more that the fact that Ecotourism Australia is not supported by Tourism Australia.

While I think the new “There’s nothing like… Australia” campaign by Tourism Australia is beautifully shot, it certainly doesn’t appeal to an international audience. It’s very patriotic and would be a stellar campaign to stimulate domestic travel, but the underlying questions on my trip centred on the support for indigenous tourism. This is a big interest for international tourists and Ecotourism Australia. It never entered my mind that Tourism Australia would not be supporting such a prestigious event or issue.

Ecotourism Australia has been a pioneer and early adopter in the ecotourism industry, but without the support of the major tourism arm in Australia, its impact will be limited.  I am in disbelief that it does not get funding to increase the awareness around the cause and establish a leadership position because it has everyone’s ear.

I spoke with many of the other speakers, who range from the UN to some of the most influential private sector companies before confirming my attendance, in order to compare notes about the issues and see if we can have a positive impact in the area. This eco-travel community has been built over 18 years, though there were no senior people in attendance from Tourism Australia and that is simply too bad. Tourism Australia is being left behind while globally sustainability has become a mainstream issue and is at the forefront of everyone else’s agenda.

Tourism Noosa and Noosa itself (as a destination) were fantastic: so underrated and surprisingly different from other coastal destinations in Australia. What stood out for me is the sense of community and almost village-like atmosphere that was not only charming but surprisingly authentic. I lunched with the board of Tourism Noosa and we had a spirited debate in the most beautiful restaurant overlooking the ocean. I was rather argumentative about their new campaign and debated their target audience. I felt that what they have is a special opportunity to differentiate based on their people and cultural assets.  We talked about the use of social media and how they presently use this space. I will say that the group I was expecting would have been rather stiff or conservative, but the group I found was not at all. I really enjoyed our lunch and not only did I learn a lot about the region, but I even committed to coming back with my kids.

I’ve been looking for a place like Noosa for quite a while.  This is the kind of costal holiday we love: a dying breed around the world, as beautiful coastlines are now dotted with resort compounds that remove the spirit of community in the area. I understand there is a huge market for this, but it isn’t my scene.

There was a conference day devoted to indigenous tourism and once again there was a powerful line-up of speakers and influencers. I changed the tone of my talk considerably and spoke about our global experiences with community development and changing people’s lives. I listened to others tell of compelling stories about their projects and how their view on the concept. I have never had the privilege of attending a conference dedicated to indigenous tourism and it was fantastic to see the pride and camaraderie generated by the fact that the whole time was focused on this very important topic.

It became apparent to me that Australia has the problem of having too many tourism assets. I believe indigenous destinations could be a key differentiator for Australia but it needs a lot of work. Judging by the support Ecotourism Australia is getting, there needs to be a more pronounced effort in supporting and growing indigenous tourism.  All I can say is that the present programs in place for indigenous tourism are not enough and, I believe, focused in the wrong direction.

Developing indigenous tourism takes finesse and patience to build a long term sustainable strategy. This is in opposition to how government operates. The performance restrictions put on our voted governments are short term and therefore counterintuitive to what is needed to develop a program focused on cultural heritage. That is why organizations like Ecotourism Australia, who have been around for almost 20 years are crucial to the process, and can be used to spearhead long term initiatives. They have built relationships and trust with the communities involved and have the expertise to not only lead such initiatives, but also bring in international help or influence if needed.  Community cooperation requires dialogue, understanding, commitment and patience.

Tourism Australia was quick to point out their various government programs and support they offered but I thought they missed the point. It isn’t about spending money or offering micro loans; these communities need education way before funding. They need to understand the tourism industry first in order to create a tourism attraction. They need to know the needs of international and domestic tourism. They need to be educated about the differences between British, German, American or Canadian tourists… they are all unique and these communities need to learn how to cater to different markets. It’s a very complex process. A company like Gap Adventures has been working on it for 20 years and we’re still learning.

The other key question from me was about accessibility. It’s the toughest question in community development but it has to be the first one. Is your community reasonably accessible to travellers? Is there transport into the community (and not by private float plane or a 12 hour bus ride)?  If there isn’t, someone has to deliver the hard message that maybe tourism isn’t what your community should be focused on. Other sustainable programs may need to be looked at, as tourism isn’t always the easy answer.

Australia is like a second home for me. I am there a few times a year and while I have mainly spent my time in the business centres, I am grateful for the chance to have met so many passionate people, and to learn about the challenges and successes in the Australian indigenous tourism industry. I want to point out that the challenges that Australia faces are the same the world over. I have seen them everywhere I have been and it is very important to understand this. In Canada we face the same problems of long distances between major centres, highly populated cities, mass amounts of unused and inaccessible land, and ongoing First Nations issues. There are similar situations in the United States, Latin America and in South Africa.

That is why committed organizations like Ecotourism Australia should be used as an agent of change. If they can get the right support, they can be the model for the world.

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