The key to sustainable tourism

by Mike Welling
Founder/CEO Hemisphere Digital

Tourism Minister Dan Tehan recently said Australia has one key advantage when it comes to international tourism, even in the face of prolonged border closures: “the beauty of our product”. 

Clearly, Australians are opening their eyes to this beauty locally, with visitation numbers surging at a number of destinations across the country.

But this beauty advantage is only as good as our ability to protect this “product”.

That’s why sustainability metrics must be considered as the tourism sector looks to a major reset and recovery during and following the COVID-19 crisis.

And that’s exactly what we’re offering with Hemisphere Digital: a fresh way of examining visitation metrics that goes beyond economic benefits to a much more holistic approach.

Our platform enables easy and open data access for users to gain insights on tourism that not only explores where people are moving and how they are spending, but to also analyse the biodiversity risks of such movements, the benefits or risks to Indigenous communities, the environmental degradation that may be occurring, as well as other key sustainability metrics that are vital to protecting Australia.

Just look to National Parks to see the uptick in foot traffic occurring from more Australians travelling locally. The number of people visiting NSW National Parks was up 150% over the 2020/21 summer period. Record numbers are also visiting South Australia’s national parks, with more than 220,000 visitors booking in to camp or visit the state’s national parks between January and June 2021, up 70,000 over the previous record set in 2019. 

Meanwhile, Cape York in Queensland has also been experiencing surging numbers in June, with the region reopening to tourists after being closed last year to protect its remote communities from COVID-19.

Man learning about the geology of the outback on a Mungo Guided Tour
Learning about the geology of the outback on a Mungo Guided Tour.

While it’s great to see more people exploring these areas, it raises concerns about the impact of such foot traffic.

How can we support the sustainability and environmental efforts needed alongside these visitor surges? By analysing the data and determining exactly which areas need support and what risks can be identified.

But more, these insights can also support planning efforts and tourism development plans.  

Take, for example, the recent NSW Government announcement to spend $80 million creating infrastructure and other assets to support “multi-day-walks” between the Illawarra in the South and Botany Bay in Sydney. It’s a great initiative to get more Australians outdoors, but one that can be significantly enhanced and protected through data insights predicting potential foot traffic and supporting project planning.  

In Tasmania, which Premier Peter Gutwein once declared was on a mission to become the “eco-tourism capital of the world”, the state is facing United Nations’ pressure over it’s the protection of World Heritage Areas, due to proposed tourism developments in the area. We’ve also recently learnt that the draft Tourism Master Plan for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area has urged the state’s environment department to examine the social impacts of tourism development projects in wilderness areas. We believe data can support such examinations and data can enable Tasmania to become the word-leading eco-tourism centre it aspires to be. 

My team has built Hemisphere Digital to support sustainable tourism in Australia because we’ve lived and breathed sustainability all our lives. 

We’re adventurers at heart and collectively concerned about how to protect our most precious natural resources, to better include communities in decision making, and work with all stakeholders to sustainably rebuild Australia’s tourism sector. 

There’s Tim Macartney-Snape OAM, a world renowned mountaineer, explorer and international speaker. There’s Cameron Crowe, the founder of Leave No Trace Australia, managing our sustainability partnerships. There’s Mandy Armstrong, our sustainability and innovation advisor, and many more

Personally, my passion was developed working in a remote community in Brazil 25 years ago, building a sustainable national park management plan through community-based education programs and scientific study.

Through this work I saw how environmental preservation and the models required to make it happen can’t be the sole responsibility of the scientific community alone. It takes a holistic response that includes the active involvement of the community at its heart.

Reflecting on my years in the Brazilian wilderness sparked the idea to build a more integrated technology platform enabling greater visibility and easier management of available data for use across natural resources management, for quick insights into community sentiment monitoring, as well as for minimising impact to our wild spaces.

By developing the skills, the mindset and the experience – and collaborating with some equally passionate people who shared the vision along the way —  we’ve developed the platform to make this vision happen. 

The next step? To get these valuable insights into the hands of policy-makers, tourism bodies, the private sector, community groups and tourism entities large and small. Through open and transparent access to data and technology, we see an opportunity to work collaboratively to make a more sustainable Australia.

Traditionally, visitation data has been economic in focus – and while Hemisphere Digital can still offer this, our team was determined to move well beyond economics to address the gaps in insights that can be gained from going broader. There is so much value to be gained here: by examining metrics concerning sustainability, community sentiment and environmental degradation. 

We believe these collective insights will enable Australia’s tourism sector to not only recover from the COVID-19 crisis as well as other devastating weather-related events over the past few years, but to actually reset to create a much better industry.

This could be a once in lifetime opportunity to reset the balance of the impact of tourism in favour of a more sustainable future that puts the protection of the “product” at its heart.

Our goal is to make easy-to-access insights available to government, private enterprise, to small business and communities in a cost effective and affordable way. To harness the power and good available in data to serve Australia’s tourism sector for the better now, and well into the future.

A sector enabled by data, that positions environmental protection and sustainability above all else. And one that understands just how vital these protection measures are for appealing to both domestic and international visitors.