|dc.description.abstract||Context: Non-traditional means of environmental protection are being used with increasing frequency to address the global conservation crisis and make up the shortfall in government conservation spending. Ecotourism is one such mechanism that has been adopted widely for community development and conservation purposes in both practice and policy, particularly in developing nations due to the potential to combine social and commercial benefits with conservation goals. However, evaluations of how ecotourism enterprises fit into the ecotourism-conservation relationship are a relatively recent trend. Findings from the literature review of this thesis reveal that our current understanding of this relationship is limited to (1) hand-picked sites located primarily in developing nations; (2) a narrow group of predominantly visitor and community focused conservation activities; and (3) inconsistent evaluation approaches that often lack repeatability and transferability. As such, the evidence base for this relationship is currently insufficient.
Aim: This thesis addressed this gap through a multidisciplinary mixed methods approach to identify and explore the conservation practices of ecotourism enterprises at both a broad global scale and a detailed national scale within Australia.
Approach: An evaluation framework incorporating a matrix of 27 feasible actions and 26 potential conservation outcomes was constructed through data mining, qualitative content analysis and iterative inductive coding of sources from a range of disciplines and sectors.
This framework was used to guide an assessment of the conservation activities of 86 fixed-site eco-certified enterprises in Australia and evaluate their contributions to national conservation priorities. Certification by the national industry association, Ecotourism Australia, is pervasive in Australia, so these 86 sites are likely to represent the highest performing enterprises and their aggregate achievements provide a good approximation to continental scale contributions.
Finally, the conservation practices of these 86 sites and the content of the national certification program were compared with the national conservation policy landscape to identify key overlaps and gaps for progressing the ecotourism-conservation relationship in Australia.
Findings: Findings demonstrate that this group of Australian ecotourism enterprises generate a myriad of conservation gains through social and ecological actions. However, the significance of the conservation practices of these sites varied greatly, with some sites making important contributions to threatened species or ecosystems, and others simply listing actions with little focus on their extent or outcomes.
All sites took some action to revegetate cleared land and remove non-native flora, and 75% of sites targeted non-native fauna. However, only 54% of sites reported improved habitat; only 7% successfully eradicated at least one weed species; and just 6% eradicated at least one introduced fauna species (including feral cats, foxes and rabbits). Legally binding conservation agreements were established by 63% of sites covering 2,400km2 in total; however, these are in-perpetuity agreements for just 25 sites covering 1,550km2. Nevertheless, 41% of sites share a border with a public protected area, effectively extending the public protected area network by an additional 650km2.
Specific conservation actions such as threat management and nest provision were reported for 61 threatened plant and animal species. These include 27 bird species, 15 mammals, 8 plants, 4 reptiles, 2 rays, and a single monotreme, amphibian, crustacean, freshwater fish, and insect. Fifteen of these species are covered by National Recovery Plans or Priority Plans including 4 mammals: the woylie bettong, 2 species of quoll, and 1 subspecies of bandicoot. How many individuals of each of these species occur on each of these ecotourism sites, however, is generally not specified, so these contributions cannot currently be quantified.
Conclusions: Many of these certified ecotourism enterprises claim a range of contributions to conservation. The emphasis in the reporting practices of enterprises, however, is on: actions taken rather than ecologically quantified outcomes; achievements reported qualitatively rather than quantitatively; and unspecified contributions to larger-scale efforts, such as National Recovery Plans for threatened species. One reason for this is that the eco-certification program relies only on a tick-box list of actions rather than a set of quantified, monitored, and ecologically significant conservation outcomes. It appears that some of these ecotourism enterprises do indeed make ecologically significant contributions, commensurate with their relatively small scale; but in its current form, the certification program neither encourages nor rewards these. For this program to progress beyond “a commitment to nature conservation” and contribute meaningfully to conservation goals, it will need substantial reworking.
Additionally, findings demonstrate several areas where the conservation activities of ecotourism sites overlap with national conservation priorities, highlighting the collaboration potential between these sectors. However, this study also reveals that tourism is predominantly acknowledged by national conservation policy in Australia as a driver for environmental protection as well as an impact that must be managed, and is not yet widely acknowledged as an industry that can contribute to conservation goals.
By (1) developing a framework for systematically evaluating the conservation impacts of ecotourism enterprises; (2) providing a contribution to the evidence base necessary for the substantiated use of ecotourism as a conservation mechanism; (3) identifying key opportunities for conservation-ecotourism collaborations and strategic investments; and (4) highlighting priority improvement areas for ecotourism sites and Ecotourism Australia to increase their eligibility and attractiveness as investment options for government grants and programs, this thesis has important implications for operators, researchers, policymakers, and eco-certification bodies.||