“Born Free*” (Not): Releasing wildlife tourism’s economic potential

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wildlife tourism experiences can touch deep emtions

(Born Free is a non-fiction story of wildlife rehabilitation in Kenya)

"Now Ford and Alcoa have closed I drive this airport shuttle bus," says my pleasant 53 year old driver as we pass the old lime quarry, emptied of its ore decades before and no longer suppyling concrete makers. Times are changing yet again for Geelong and tourism is seen as a bright hope for its future, or more specifically wildlife tourism (I am attending the 3rd Australian Wildlife Tourism Conference). At the opening address John Even, Victorian Minister for Tourism, confidently saw tourism filling the economic gap with the appeal of wildlife a "key driver of the visitor economy" and contributor to the 206,000 tourism jobs in Victoria. By way of example he cited the 1.2 million visitors to Phillip Island, explained how the transition from logging to tourism in the Otway had created 10,000s of local jobs and predicted that visitor expenditure in his state would grow 86% in the next ten years. Positive macro economic factors do not always reveal the real life complexities of establishing and running a competitive responsible wildlife tourism business on a micro scale. If the true economic potential of wildlife tourism is to be realised and provide opportunities for communities, then detailed planning must protect natural heritage and consider how to maximise the positive benefits at a grass roots level.

Wildlife tourism does have considerable economic potential. Wildlife tourism in Africa demonstrates just how valuable it can be with average visitor expenditure running at US$433 per person per (UNWTO, 2015). This compares to nature tourism in Australia with average expenditure of $141 for international visitors (Tourism Research Australia 2009). Like Africa, Australia's wildlife and natural landscapes are key assets which attract international visitors and make flagship animals very valuable to the economy ( Hundloe, T., Hamilton, C. & Wilks, L.1997). However, natural heritage must be protected and integrated into sustainable development if it is to remain a competitive asset. For example the current poor health of the Great Barrier Reef may have contributed to Australia's declining global tourism competitiveness ranking. Policy needs to encompass protection of land and sea and be integrated with training and incentives. This must support the complex challenges that face wildlife tourism operators:

  • which squeeze margins and increase competition due to flat domestic demand Fredline (2007),
  • which leave them reliant on international markets that can face their economic down turns
  • where the majority of package tour profits are not retained in the community Tisdell (2012)  
  • where income is directly impacted by weather Tisdell (2012), and wildlife loss through climate change and its bush fire consequences Warren (2013)

Both macro and micro planning is essential because each business is unique and will have varying levels of integration into the local economy and different conservation goals. Their barriers are dependent of local wildlife, geography and land management stakeholders. At wildlife tourism's heart is conserving the very asset it seeks to share with visitors. Conservation is not a simple action, particularly when we are trying to reverse the enormous decline in Australian biodiversity. While wildlife tourism has great economic potential it is not born free* of cost and planning. Consequently generalised economic values of wildlife tourism (or the broader termed nature or ecotourism) should not overlook the need for local community involvement, re-training of workers seeking new career paths in specific regions and planning the integration of responsible conservation. These factors will directly contribute to positive destination competitiveness and resilience.

These factors also require integration combining government and community resources and attitudes which takes "political skill", according to my associate Harold Goodwin. These political challenges were noted at the conference by Senator Janet Rice who stressed that nature tourism "is political". In support, Dr Ronda Green's address argued that governments don't know the complexities of eco science and wildlife populations and consequently this hampers optimising environmental policies to favour wildlife tourism and benefit from its value. She believes we need more research and study programmes to help value wildlife tourism.

From selected proceedings from the conference I have highlighted five themes that demonstrate best practice approaches and progress in Responsible Wildlife Tourism. Further case examples from the field could be combined to establish best practice guidelines and help conserve wildlife and benefit communities.


1. Political

Increase wildlife tourism's economic value by revenue streams and protection:

  • Dr Jatna Supriatna is advising the Indonesian government on ecotourism and seeks to encourage a transition away from palm oil deforestation in favour of tourism. "Protection of the environment is felt by ministers to mean restriction" rather than conserving the assets and releasing their value through responsible wildlife tourism. His plan is to introduce local innovations like income generation from national parks through entry fees, concessions for tourism development, local community economic links and doubling tourist visitation. This holistic approach would provide an alternative economic benefit and encourage government policy to benefit from protecting the environment.
  • The Philippines is taking a collaborative approach with four government departments (tourism, commerce, agriculture and local government) working together to protect the country's 35,000 km coastline, was presented by Maric Rica Bueno (Office of Tourism Standards & Regulations). The programme involves regulations, rezoning spaces, introducing penalties and fines and involving host communities (though the policing of responsible practices is   admittedly a challenge). The country's tourism growth (8% per annum between 1998-2014 and visitor expenditure doubling in the last four years to $1.1 billion) has been a key factor in persuading government to focus on natural heritage. A result of this has been the Philippines' tourism competitiveness world ranking has risen from 94 to 74 (2014).


2. Creating Meaningful Connections

Our increasing knowledge of social psychology applied to proenvironmental behaviour is beginning to benefit wildlife tourism. Techniques that have been practiced in the field of consumer marketing for decades are now filtering through to conservation. To be effective it requires the wildlife tourism operator to have sufficient knowledge of wildlife, skill in storytelling, a relevant conservation plan and sequential influencing steps to the persuade visitors to make a contribution.

  • Dr Jeffrey Skibins explains that "animals don't need to be cuddly anymore to raise concern.... visitors are getting more specialised and expect a personalised experience with conservation". To be effective this means a wildlife tourism experience should have a call to action, where visitors are encouraged to participate in a clearly explained and motivating cause. This process provides information using interpretation and demonstration to create an emotional connection. Dr Skibins emphasises that a well-crafted message, consistently told should not only involve visitors, but should also consider site pressures and progress to establishing longer term customer relationships with the wildlife operator.
  • To increase the visitors' level of participation a structured period of reflection can be incorporated into the wildlife experience. This helps visitors think through the information, asses if it fits with their own values and permits new thinking on the subject, particularly how they might help. This generates a more meaningful connection. More meaningful connections are created when operators better understand the needs and motives of their visitors and better link their business conservation approach with interpretation.


3. Visitor Contributions to Conservation

Visitor actions can be varied and have wide positive impacts:

  • In Indonesia Orangutan Odysseys raised over $600,000 in three years for conservation "and that is more than our turnover" points out owner Peter Miller. His company applies an innovative management approach to conservation. Orangutan Odysseys direct all their visitors' funds to one NGO which is then responsible for distributing resources to other local specialist concerns in Indonesia and also manages progress. This leaves conservation planning and implementation to experts who focus on their speciality, while Peter is able to fully concentrate on his visitors' experience and promote a well run conservation programme. 
  • Likewise award winning Echidna Walkabout not only shows visitors koalas, but involves them to actively weed koala's habitat. "It is great fun as visitors enjoy pulling out weeds, small and very big," says marketing manager Janine Duffy. This becomes part of the overall experience and permits active experience from what might otherwise be passive viewing. Visitors also contribute to conservation by purchasing the company's book. Janine Duffy's business has more than doubled in the last few years directly because of the guest's conservation interactions, not to mention in resulting in the near eradication of weeds on the property.
  • Zoos Victoria are retailing Kenyan Massi woman's jewellery and raised $1 million over three years. This alternative income helps Massi to reduce the expansion of agricultural activity the community would otherwise have to take with consequential decline in native plants, an essential food for threatened zebras.

Such examples not only generate visitor expenditure from traditional tourism services, but equally channel resources for the protection of the tourism assets. This has the expanded benefit of wider biodiversity conservation in the area. It is a win-win situation not recorded in government satellite accounts and not discussed as a strategic micro level output in most destination plans. Consequently wildlife tourism's potential is not always fully harnessed.

4. The Value of Education

To reap a longer term economic value from tourism and specifically wildlife tourism (so it can be sustainable by creating authentic operators and motivated customers) we must grow awareness of the world outside our cities. By doing this we should create opportunities to learn, love nature and share  the care of its treasures.

  • Dr Ann Thompson-Carr believes New Zealand's Enviroschools project does just this. It has contributed to supporting coastline protection and benefiting from wildlife tourism around the city of Dunedin. The results are an excellent example of wildlife tourism. She cited the change in Oamaru Blue Penguins breeding pair numbers, 85 birds and 14 breeding pairs in 1994, to 333 birds and 30 breeding pairs by 2014. Visitors to see the penguins now number 75,000 per annum. Likewise in Dunedin, the Otago Peninsula Royal Albatross Centre had 200 visitors in 1972 and now has 180,000 with 60,000 guided tourists (it is the only man made Albatross colony in the world and numbers have grown to 200 birds up from 25 in 2003). She believes education programmes are a core part of the conservation success, with 1,000 volunteer hours contributed per month. A new innovation to local ecotourism sites is the inclusion of Maori cultural heritage. Direct economic income from tourism in Dunedin is now NZ$3.5 million (plus indirect NZ$6.5m).
  • Using Aboriginal cultural belief systems, I have conducted research to see if it builds Environmental Concern in school children. Many of the kids whom recall the field day two years later still value their wildlife Moodgee and seek to care for their place. The field day games included collecting wildlife symbols, Aboriginal storytelling and creative play. A pre and post trip survey measured the children's level of environmental concern which rose significantly. The children displayed high involvement and interest throughout the one day event and produced creative results. Combining the syllabus topic of Aboriginal heritage and environmental studies may offer new ways to build meaningful nature connections in children.


5. Passion makes a Business Competitive

Developing an authentic wildlife tourism experience requires the transference of the host's own personality, through storytelling , to convey a special sense of place

  • Wild Sweden are an acknowledged leader in authentic wildlife holidays because visitors experience much more than passive nature viewing. Guide Marcus Eldh clearly loves his country and meeting people, his passion transcends the product and his product is constantly refreshed and evolves, for example he has introduced the "most primitive accommodation in Sweden".


Wildlife tourism is not born free*, it requires macro and micro policy, and planning and intervention if countries are to benefit from its true economic value. The protection of nature and responsible wildlife tourism access requires political will, meaningful connections, education and passion where the visitor contributes to grass roots implementation. To stimulate positive change governments must research and measure the value of nature protection and its consequently positive impact on tourism competitiveness.

From a micro perspective wildlife tourism operators need to apply an increasingly sophisticated systematic persuasive communication approach in order to provide a memorable tourism experience. These include themed storytelling, active participation, visitor reflection time and a clear motivating call to action. This means the experience and conservation actions are a synergy of entertainment, education, action and long term relationship building between the operator, visitor and wildlife. Responsible tourism training is therefore required.

Local factors will deeply affect the type of experience, thus micro grass roots planning at a destination management level must establish marketing plans and economic links which build on these unique factors while at the same time integrate land/threatened species protection, macro policy and legislation. Otherwise we have a danger of introducing irresponsible tourism experiences which will not fulfil their potential and customer expectation.

In Australia the value of domestic nature tourism is disproportionally lower than the international sector. To become more sustainable maybe we need to take a leaf out of the activists' book; in the beginning of the campaign to protect the East Gippsland Forests in Victoria it was seen as critical "to get people into the forests so that they fall in love with the forest", explains Senator Janet Rice. To build a love of nature you need to establish a meaningful connection. It is this connection which builds Environmental Concern and helps motivate us to take action. Establishing a connection where an individual loves nature would surely be a required first step to become an appreciative visitor who is motivated to contribute to conservation or even to become a wildlife tourism operator or land care officer.

Tim Winton, describes an Australia where a generational change is occurring and there is a greater love and understanding of the country's natural environment. Australian wildlife tourism should now build on this social change to help conserve our natural heritage and reap the economic benefits for communities.


Christopher was a keynote speaker at the 3rd Australian Wildlife Tourism Conference 


Sustainable Wildlife Tourism Activity Developer.pdf336.83 KB
Responsible Tourism Wildlife Experience Planner.pdf350.62 KB