Can Lady Elliot Island be a model for ecotourism?

Aviator Peter Gash says 'yes', and that other businesses should follow

By SHELLEY DEMPSEY
A turtle swims near Lady Elliot Island. Peter Gash considers himself a custodian of the reef.
A turtle swims near Lady Elliot Island. Peter Gash considers himself a custodian of the reef.

In 1980, no one knew much about environmental tourism, but that was when aviator Peter Gash first saw a bewitching island far out to sea on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and his dream was born. That tiny speck in the middle of nowhere sparked his desire to become a green entrepreneur, and he has put it on the world map as a model for ecotourism.

Now ranked as one of the top sites in the world to dive with manta rays, the marine paradise known as Lady Elliot Island has become an international drawcard for tourists and scientists, and Gash has made the costly business of ecotourism work. The island makes a small profit, which seems to surprise some, including Gash himself, who has spent A$4 million there since he took over as leaseholder in 2005.

“It’s really simple, mate, it’s called karma. The more you give, the more you get,” he says. “Because we’re doing the right thing by the location and by the environment, the environment seems to be giving back.

 

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“I think of the loaves and the fishes story. Lady Elliot has been like that. I keep thinking, where’s the money going to come from? But I just keep reaching in the bin and the money keeps coming out. So the business of the island operates with no debt.”

Gash, who also owns aviation business Seair Pacific, which transports 21,500 tourists to the 42-hectare island every year from the Queensland mainland, is a passionate conservationist. His lease on the 150-bed Lady Elliot Eco Resort, located 80km off Bundaberg in a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park protected “Green Zone”, runs until 2035.

Based on the Gold Coast, Gash visits every week and likes to evangelise about the island, which is a University of Queensland research station with spectacular living coral, where marine turtles frolic in the shallows, manta rays congregate by the dozens and whales sing under water to each other. “It’s just breathtaking at times,” he says.

“But I tell people the truth – the resort itself is basic. Don’t come here if you think it’s going to be the Sheraton or the Hyatt.

But it’s a million-dollar location and the marine encounters you get here will be second to none, anywhere in the world.”

It all started in 1980, when Gash first visited Lady Elliot and was “blown away” by the experience. There he met his wife, Julie, and in 1985 he started flying day-trippers to the island, and took over Seair in 1990.

Because we’re doing the right thing by the location and by the environment, the environment seems to be giving back.– Peter Gash

His partners in the Lady Elliot business are his wife, sports personality Grant Kenny and Gold Coast commercial lawyer Michael Kyle. Peter and Julie Gash hold an 80 per cent interest in Lady Elliot, and Kenny and Kyle 10 per cent each. “Grant’s a silent partner who’s only been to the island three or four times, whereas Michael’s a very active partner,” says Gash. “He and his family have converted on climate change and he is my biggest ally. I’d be stuffed without him.”

Protecting Lady Elliot is a serious mission. With his hands firmly on the levers of science, tourism, engineering and marketing, Gash has transformed a very remote location into a place that’s now well known on social media, especially for its underwater photography.

“One of our photos ended up on the Press Association and in a matter of 24 hours we received 20,000 likes,” says Gash. “A couple of times people have put pictures on Facebook with a whale, a manta and a turtle all in the one click.”

It also has a growing reputation as a scientific base. Gash helped University of Queensland scientists set up a tourist education centre on Lady Elliot, where researchers do their work on Project Manta. Last year, the university published the first census of manta rays off Australia’s east coast, identifying a population of more than 715 when it was thought there were only 40.

Gash has also reduced the island’s carbon footprint by installing a A$750,000 solar power plant and a water desalination plant, and banning the sale of plastic water bottles. He plans to be energy self-sufficient by 2015. “The biggest thing is our solar power station,” says Gash.

Peter Gash
Peter Gash

“Within three to four years, we’ve reduced our fuel burn by 70 per cent, which is remarkable. If I can do that on Lady Elliot, I often wonder why they can’t do more in Sydney or Melbourne.”

The island is starting to attract recognition. University of Queensland scientist Dr Kathy Townsend says the business has some of the best green credentials she has ever seen.

“It’s unusual for a tourism-type place,” she says. “I am so completely impressed with their operation, they really do put their money where their mouth is. Peter is doing it right and he really is an industry leader in that way.”

Conservationist, the late Steve Irwin, was a friend before his death and his wife, Terri, still holidays on Lady Elliot with her kids. Raphael Domjan, skipper of the solar boat PlanetSolar, stopped at Lady Elliot on his global voyage.

At the Queensland Tourism Awards last November, Lady Elliot won the Steve Irwin Silver Award for Ecotourism. Gash says this means “an enormous amount” and that ecotourism is “about making a difference, not making a fortune”. He says he’s on Lady Elliot to act as a custodian of the reef to leave a legacy for his family and others.

While the bouquets keep coming, the challenges ahead are daunting. The reef has a tourism value of more than A$50 billion over the next 100 years, but coral cover has dropped by half since the 1980s, according to the Townsville-based Australian Institute of Marine Science. UNESCO has deferred until next year a decision on whether to put the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area on its “in danger” list, after expressing alarm at the pace of development at Gladstone and plans for new Queensland port projects.

Gash says he thinks that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is doing a good job of managing competing interests, ranging from radical “dark greens” through to “dark browns” who don’t care about the natural environment.

“We’re certainly not letting the dark browns get hold of the place, but neither can we have the dark greens; we have to have that balance in the middle somewhere,” he says.

“Provided they impose firm environmental guidelines – and I believe they have – and ensure they enforce them, then the reef is under reasonable control and care.”

Despite the many accolades he receives, Gash admits he has to defend his involvement in aviation to some people. Seair operates 10 aircraft and services mine sites in Queensland with fly-in, fly-out workers.

“I service mine sites for two really strong reasons,” he says. “One is a business reason – obviously this keeps my business going and my planes busy and helps me with my Lady Elliot servicing. But also when I fly executives to mine sites, and I do it all the time, I end up having dinner with them. They start off by calling me a tree-hugging greenie. Then I tell them about things like my solar power station, which is an asset that paid for itself in two years.

“I slowly and carefully prick their interest and just maybe convince them to do one or two things on their mine sites that may be a little more sensible. So we work with them and educate them and encourage them in any way we can. It’s a circle of influence.”

Gash says aviation generates up to 5 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, which he sees as a small problem compared with deforestation, which contributes about 30 per cent to the carbon load.

Airplanes contribute in a positive way by flying tourists from all over the world to the reef and Lady Elliot, which raises global awareness of ecological issues, he says.

“Aviation always leads the world and everyone else follows. Before I’m an old man, they’ll be flying an airplane powered by solar energy. I’m quite excited, I can’t wait till I get one. It will be like the hybrid car. I have a hybrid car and so does my wife. We will get our first hybrid airplane one day.”

The changing face of ecotourism

Planting trees, researching marine life and marsupials, cleaning up rubbish, working in indigenous communities … It’s not everyone’s idea of a holiday, but tourists are hungry for eco-experiences and volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism”.

Lady Elliot Island was once grazed by goats to feed sailors but is now a wildlife haven
Lady Elliot Island was once grazed by goats to feed
sailors but is now a wildlife haven

In 1990 The International Ecotourism Society defined ecotourism as: “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the wellbeing of local people.” The UN World Tourism Organization predicts ecotourism could grow to account for 10-15 per cent of the globe’s estimated US$1.3 trillion annual tourism revenue. Ecotourism Australia, which is recognised by the UN-sponsored Global Sustainable Tourism Council, has accredited about 500 ecotourism bodies in Australia to operate in the sector nationally.

Although ecotourism has been around since the 1970s, there is now a heavier emphasis on conservation. Organisations such as Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA) attract thousands of tourists every year, who are happy to get down and dirty and pay for the privilege. Scientific groups such as Project Manta run expeditions where volunteers pay thousands of dollars to scuba dive with scientists and help research manta rays.

Partnering with scientists has contributed greatly to establishing Queensland’s Lady Elliot Island as an eco-resort, according to its leaseholder Peter Gash, who regularly speaks at conferences to raise the island’s profile.

Gash says we’ve come a long way since he started out in the 1980s, flying tourists to Great Barrier Reef islands. “Thirty or 40 years ago, we didn’t really know much about environmental tourism then. Conservation was not something many people thought about.”

But even then, he found his air tourists were interested in the environment and he decided to use his planes as a tool to get them to where they could experience nature.

“The change is just dramatic now. Ecotourism and people wanting to care for the environment. It’s all going forward fast.”

 

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