On 5 November 2014, Australian wildlife tour company Echidna Walkabout won Gold for Best for Wildlife Conservation in the World Responsible Tourism Awards at the World Travel Market in London. Jeremy Smith spoke to their co-founder Janine Duffy about the challenges and passions driving her business.
1: What inspired you to create your business
It was love! 23 years ago Roger and I were working together and found we had a shared love of nature. That led to a love of each other, and a great partnership was born. We spent all our spare time together exploring the national parks near Melbourne – wonderful parks, full of wildlife – and rarely saw anyone else doing the same thing.
Roger had worked for Australia’s peak environmental NGO – the Australian Conservation Foundation – and one of his responsibilities was leading groups of politicians, board members, donors and volunteers into the bushland they were trying to protect. He and a team of colleagues were successful – several new National Parks were declared. It lit a spark in him, a realisation that a talented, passionate, informed Guide can make a huge difference to one’s desire to protect an environment. He guided me through the Bush with the same enthusiasm, and I was converted – for good.
We realised that our personal style of travel could be shared, and in doing we could protect the places and the animals we love.
2: How does being responsible help your business attract potential customers?
Well, that is interesting. Most of our customers are mainstream. But being responsible is the main reason we have those customers. It works in a complex way.
Justin Francis, CEO Responsible Travel summed it up well at WTM 2014 by saying that recent research had found that travellers choose a holiday because it is an authentic and wonderful experience. If it is responsible, then that is great, but that’s not why they choose it. However, responsible holidays are more authentic and wonderful than mainstream holidays – there is a direct link.
First, to make a new tourism product work, you have to be good. Very, very good. The mainstream travel market is conservative, ultra-tough and skeptical of new operators and products. The mainstream market weeds out product that is under-funded, inferior or hard to sell. So basically, the mainstream travel market strangles innovation. Luckily, there are some big travel companies that support innovation – Swain Destinations and Down Under Answers in USA, Nyhavn Rejser, Australiareiser & MyPlanet in Scandinavia, Australie a la Carte in France and Responsible Travel in UK.
Small responsible travel businesses are often underfunded and offer product that is new, unknown and therefore hard to sell. But they are rarely inferior. They are usually exceptional – they offer exactly what tourists want: an authentic, inspiring holiday. And that’s where we win. Being responsible makes us authentic. It makes us inspiring. It keeps us striving to deliver a better experience because we want our guests to continue the conservation actions they started on the tour. We aim to make a difference to their lives! Being responsible gives our clients something to talk about: eg, from our recent TripAdvisor review: “Bonus: you’re supporting the company’s scientific research and conservation efforts.” Being responsible gives us more publicity in media and travel channels. We get whole pages – free – in travel brochures, blogs and online news while our mainstream competitors pay dearly for a quarter page.
So being responsible gives a small innovative business a chance to overcome the massive hurdles of lack of funding and being unknown. Being responsible gives a big business more publicity than their competitors, and publicity = sales. If you’re in a tourism business right now and you’re not responsible, you’re crazy.
3: How do you engage guests in your responsible tourism activities?
We get them to weed! Its awesome. We call it Make a Home for Koala Clancy. In two years, as a result of this project, our wild koala sightings have increased by 370%. Over six years of wild koala research in the You Yangs ranges we noticed that koalas rarely use trees surrounded by Boneseed – an introduced weed. 65% of the You Yangs is infested with Boneseed, so it made sense to us that removing the weed might help the koalas. But such a big infestation takes a big committment. Could 7,000 passengers annually pull out enough weeds to make a difference? We knew it would only work if we incorporated weeding into every one of our tours.
So after visiting wild Koala Clancy we ask every one of our travellers to pull out one weed to help Clancy. Well, you should see what happens next. They don’t pull out one – they pull out ten, or twenty weeds. We are pulling out 70,000+ weeds a year!!
That’s just one example. The principle works for other projects as well – outline a problem, provide a quick solution that can be achieved right there and then. Just a little per person, if spread across a large number of people, can make a massive difference.
4: What is the responsible tourism initiative of which you are most proud?
Our team are what makes us most proud. Take Mel King, our Koala Research Supervisor. Mel is a 26 year old Australian Aboriginal Woman. Her eagle eyes and empathy with koalas brought her to us when she was a teenager. On her school holidays she would help her stepdad find koalas for our tours. Over the years her understanding of koalas has grown into something profound, and she now works permanently for us.
In her spare time, she organises Koala Conservation Days for her Aboriginal Community. Once a month she takes them out to the You Yangs to pull out weeds for Koala Clancy, and teaches them what she knows about koalas. She also visits local schools to teach the kids about wildlife. To help her teach the kids, she wrote a children’s book “Koala Clancy of the You Yangs”, and we are about to receive the first print-run for distribution. We plan to make this book available to every small child in the region.
These initiatives were not ours – they were Mel’s. The powerful thing about that is the multiplying effect that responsible businesses have. If you work respectfully with your team, and your local community, they will come up with ideas and solutions that you never could have had alone. And these ideas live on.
5: What positive impacts does your tourism business have on the community / environment where you are based?
It’s difficult to list them all in a short interview! But I know from my own personal travels, that general statements are not enough – detail is important. So here are three examples, although many more available on our comprehensive environmental code on our website.
1. We are teaching the local community about their local koalas. Once a month we meet 20 to 30 local people, introduce them to wild koalas, and each participant takes turns monitoring a koala for 30 minutes, while the rest pull out weeds. On these days we are removing around 8,000 weeds per day, and fostering connection between people and koalas. The day costs us about $100 per head to run, but we make it available to locals at $20 per head – so Echidna Walkabout, and our donors, are subsidising 80% of the cost.
2. We employ 16 local people and use locally-sourced food, services, equipment that contributes to local economy. We choose owner-operated accommodation. We stay longer than most tour operators – 3 days on the Great Ocean Road, 4 days in East Gippsland, 3 days in Mungo National Park, 7 days in Kakadu & Mary River, Northern Territory. 3 to 7 days of tourist dollars is worth far more to a rural region than a short visit!
3. On the remote and pristine National Park beaches of East Gippsland, far eastern Victoria, the only disappointment is the discarded fishing net washed up on the beach. Worse, these ghost nets can be washed back out to sea endangering birds and sea mammals. So we remove it. Every Wildlife Journey tour takes out one or two large garbage bags of the dangerous net, and we are significantly reducing the hazard to marine life.
6: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?
In 2006 we lost our first wild koala population, and the site of our most popular tour, to a bushfire. 90% of the koalas were killed, and after 9 years the environment still hasn’t recovered.
The event was devastating, both personally (we had been researching those koalas for 7 years, and had built strong connections with them) and for our business. We lost business in January & February, our busiest time, as the fire raged. To save our business we had to find another site to see koalas in the shortest possible time.
We were lucky – we went to the You Yangs park, just 20 minutes away, and found wild koalas. On the second research day, I met Smoky – a beautiful wild female koala – with baby Pat on her back. These two koalas gave me hope for the future, helped me overcome my distress about the bushfire, and became the two most important koalas in my life.
Pat stayed in her mother’s home range and gave birth to three sons – Pitta, Clancy & Banjo. We were able to watch three generations of koala family: Pat’s long relationship with her mother, Pat’s special bond with her sons. Clancy, her second son, became our hero. We started our weeding project to Make a Home for Koala Clancy. It worked! He is five years old now, a regular sight on our tours and a media personality in his own right!
Climate change is causing bushfires more frequently, and they are larger and more devastating than ever. We know that unless we get climate action, we will have to face this horror again. If a big bushfire comes to the You Yangs, we will be powerless to save Clancy and Pat. And from a business point of view we are running out of options – there are very few parks left near Melbourne that still have wild koalas. In fact koalas everywhere are declining. There is no Plan B.
All tourism operators must fight climate change now by becoming responsible. Don’t delude yourself that your business is safe. Your assets are under immediate threat. You must act.
7: What advice would you give to any entrepreneur starting a responsible tourism business?
Good on you! Don’t give up, the future is on your side. If you need advice, contact me.
My advice is for entrepreneurs starting non-responsible tourism businesses. Do you want to succeed, or do you want to throw your capital down the drain? Get responsible. It’s not that hard! Do it in simple steps, one thing at a time. You won’t believe the benefits!