All quiet on the contested front

What if they held a war and nobody came? Eight months after the Napthine government released guidelines to encourage private tourism investment in Victorian national parks - provoking fierce protests in communities, letters to The Age and, last month, a rally on the beach at Wilsons Promontory - not a single proposal has been received.

What if they held a war and nobody came? Eight months after the Napthine government released guidelines to encourage private tourism investment in Victorian national parks - provoking fierce protests in communities, letters to The Age and, last month, a rally on the beach at Wilsons Promontory - not a single proposal has been received.

It's a strange result for a policy change so strongly championed by government. Tourism Minister Louise Asher said the policy was needed to "improve access" to parks and allow the "lucrative ecotourism sector" to expand by attracting more international visitors, particularly those from China, to stay overnight in Victoria.

"I'm hoping that we can get an environmentally sensitive, clearly low-rise, classy accommodation venue for regional Victoria," she told The Age in July, a month before legislation enabling longer-term leases passed in Parliament.

But opponents should not celebrate just yet. Several experienced operators have told Fairfax Media they have been discussing ideas with government for years and run rulers over potential projects on the Mornington Peninsula and the Great Ocean Road (and a government-initiated process to redevelop the former quarantine station at Point Nepean is under way). But while government and tourism authorities are still talking up potential benefits for the regions, the hurdles are significant.

Large establishment and running costs, difficulty raising capital, fragmented marketing and potential complications for indigenous enterprises - encouraged by the guidelines - mean new ecotourism developments remain in the metaphoric wilderness. Meanwhile, the government's boast that the changes would drive growth in Chinese tourism has been dismissed as naive.

Is reality trumping policy - or was the legislation prompted more by an ideological battle than one based on pent-up business and consumer demand?

Some suggest the fight over what constitutes legitimate enjoyment of national parks - and who gets to decide - may be a proxy war for broader social anxieties. Those on both sides of the debate argue there are legitimate questions about public access to public resources. Can there be too many visitors to our national parks? Too few? And what should the role of the market be in determining access?

The luxury tourism sector has attracted business luminaries, including James Packer with his plans for casino-linked hotels in Perth and Sydney, Clive Palmer with his Coolum Resort and Titanic plans, and James and Hayley Baillie's lodges on Lord Howe and Kangaroo islands and overlooking Uluru. (Hayley is the daughter of entrepreneur Dick Smith.)

"It's a very attractive sector for people who want to leave a legacy," Tourism Australia's Andrew McEvoy told the Australian Financial Review last year. "This is a huge vote of confidence from people who are serious about making money."

But while the returns may be attractive, the risks are commensurate, says James Baillie, who also chairs the board of Luxury Lodges Australia, an association of 18 independently owned lodges (including the Lake House in Daylesford), the kind of nature-based destinations the state government cites as models.

For the past three years, the Baillies have been in discussion with Tourism Victoria and Parks Victoria (a co-operation James Baillie hails as unique in Australia) about developing a luxury lodge on the Great Ocean Road.

Despite this interest, Baillie says he is unsurprised no proposals have been lodged, and is not working on one of his own. He cites high construction costs and the "outrageous" hospitality penalty rates as barriers. Costs would be even higher in parks with their lack of infrastructure and remoteness.

"That's not to say it won't happen. But the only way we can make it work ... is to do it at the top end where we can charge a rate that will make it viable," he says. Rates at Baillie lodges are about $2000 a night for a couple (all-inclusive), with profit margins around 10-20 per cent before interest.

The success of such top-end tourism depends on having a unique location that's already established and that has a critical mass of complementary activities.

Of all the Victorian national park areas that could be considered - the Grampians, Wilsons Prom, Alpine regions and the Mornington Peninsula - only the Great Ocean Road meets his criteria.

It is Victoria's most popular regional attraction for both domestic and international visitors. It has access to the Great Otway, Port Campbell, and Cape Bridgewater/Lower Glenelg national parks and about 5.1 million domestic day-trippers visited in 2013, with 2.4 million staying overnight, according to Tourism Research Australia. A further 400,000 international day-trippers came, 159,000 stayed overnight. Only 4 per cent come from China, Tourism Victoria research shows.

Despite their relatively small numbers, Baillie says the state government is right to target international visitors: only 40 per cent of his lodge visitors are domestic. But he calls Tourism Minister Asher's remarks about encouraging Chinese visitors "naive".

"The current Chinese market are predominantly after a built environment - shopping, nightlife, casinos," he says. Less than 1 per cent of guests in his lodges are Chinese; much stronger demand is from countries such as Brazil and Mexico.

Mid-market operator the RACV also rules out developing a national park resort any time soon. The car club has a suite of Victorian resorts in Torquay, Inverloch, Cape Schanck and Cobram. Sites such as the Alpine National Park or the Grampians would theoretically fit with its strategy, but general manager of public policy Brian Negus says the "RACV has no plans to build resorts at any national or state park".

Meanwhile, small businesses face even more challenges raising finance for projects. One boutique operator, in talks with Parks and Tourism Victoria for years about developing lodges in a coastal park, says political controversy makes fund-raising even more difficult, given the likelihood of protests and boycotts.

Self-funding mavericks can't be ruled out. Over three decades, eco-architect Ken Latona variously developed and operated national park lodges, including the pioneering Cradle Mountain huts in Tasmania and the Tidal River cabins in Wilsons Promontory. His lodges, which have won numerous architecture and tourism awards (and were all opposed by environmental groups), are based on a "touch the earth lightly" creed. Made from sustainable materials with solar and grey water systems, they are on sites determined not by optimal views but by where they will have the least impact. Peak-season prices are $3300 for a six-day guided walk and twin-share, all-inclusive accommodation. Latona's developments were funded by a large overdraft that gave him flexibility, while his investments were protected by lengthy leases. (The Victorian legislation allows for leases of up to 99 years.) "The relatively long-term tenure allowed me to have confidence I could do things properly, rather than just getting things established in the short term," he says.

The Victorian guidelines also encourage indigenous-run eco-enterprises and the Wilpena Pound Resort in South Australia's Flinders Ranges is one possible template. The resort is co-owned by statutory corporation Indigenous Business Australia and the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association of South Australia, with eco-resort company Anthology. Staying in a low-impact deluxe Wilpena lodge costs about $300 a night in peak season, and will soon be augmented by "glamping" in luxury tents.

Damein Bell is acting chief executive of the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, which has native title over 1325 square kilometres around Hamilton, Portland, Deen Maar (also known as Lady Julia Percy Island) and extensive coastal foreshore, and overlays parts of five national parks. He admires the Wilpena model, which has created jobs and business opportunities.

Bell says his group could be interested in developing a national park proposal. But he cautions that the politics of indigenous development in parks could be fraught. "When they put the call out for indigenous enterprises for particular areas, that doesn't necessarily mean the traditional owners," Bell says. "Indigenous enterprises that aren't supported or endorsed by traditional owner groups, particularly those with native title in the [national] parks, need to be treated with the same criteria as any other commercial proposal or enterprise."

In the absence of clear evidence of pent-up demand from business or consumers for developing private tourism facilities in national parks, why did the Coalition bring on this political stoush? It's not the only policy change relating to national parks that has resulted in controversy for the Victorian government. Under the Coalition, elected in 2010, national parks have been opened to increased logging, prospecting, firewood collection, and cattle grazing in Alpine regions. Each change has resulted in protests.

"It's all about playing to the National [party] component of the alliance, to satisfy what they thought were political demands - which may not even be strong political demands," says Dr Peter Christoff, associate professor in the department of resource management and geography at the University of Melbourne, and a member of the former Victorian Ministerial Reference Council on Climate Change Adaptation.

While parks and conservation are popularly associated with left-wing parties in contemporary politics, particularly the Greens, Christoff points to the strong Liberal tradition of support for parks and environmental values, from its support of "green wedges" in Melbourne to its establishment of the ground-breaking Land Conservation Council in the 1970s.

"There's a strong link between conservatism and conservation in the sense that you are preserving things for future generations, the old ideology of wise use and preservation," he says. "The idea of taking care of resources conservatively for present and future generations sat pretty well with the Hamer government and even the Bolte government before them."

He questions why the government chose this fight. "In terms of a strong public push for this sort of thing, I don't think it's there."

In the public debate, the rhetoric surrounding the changes - "unlocking our parks" and "improving access", as the government terms it, versus protesters' "hands off our parks" - suggests a subtle underlying battle over ownership and exclusion is going on. Coinciding with Ricky Muir's election to the Senate at the recent federal election, partly on a platform of ensuring trail bike and 4WD access in national parks, a broader social battle may be under way over what is an "appropriate" use of parks and who decides. A battle of bird watchers versus bush bashers, greenies versus greedies. Are national parks "exclusive" of certain activities - and people? Should they be?

The first clause of the 1975 National Park Act says they must be managed to "preserve and protect the park in its natural condition for the use, enjoyment and education of the public (italics added)."

Yet their recreational purpose is popularly assumed to be subservient to conservation. The most recent Department of Environment and Primary Industries' annual report on Victorian parks gives scant attention to visitor demographics and numbers in favour of flora, fauna and land management indicators. But statewide, there were 34.8 million visits to national and state parks in 2012-13, and Parks Victoria says numbers have risen steadily since it began a biennial survey in 2001-02. Recent data indicates parks users are broadly representative of the community in terms of age and gender, while on socio-economic indicators: 57 per cent came from white-collar and 43 per cent from blue-collar households; 25 per cent live in a household with a combined income over $110,000; a quarter had primary/secondary educational attainment, 31 per cent college or trade qualifications and 41 per cent were university educated.

"There's strong evidence the natural estate is used by the public at large, and hasn't been colonised by the wealthy middle class," Christoff says. He opposes private national park development in favour of development on adjacent land. "There's no reason to give privileged access - that's when you do end up with distorted access and those with significant incomes having priority over those who are also contributing to the public estate."

But Ken Latona argues some sites will be accessible only to those with considerable agility and experience. "Cradle can be a very threatening environment and if you're not used to it, you can get into trouble pretty easily," he says. "My principal interest was how you could get small numbers of people through exquisite areas and not have any impact. And socially it gave people an opportunity who otherwise wouldn't have made it because of the conditions."

Matt Ruchel, executive director of the Victorian National Parks Association, sees even small-scale private development as the thin end of the wedge, arguing the troubled, state-owned Mount Buffalo Chalet started as a shack before it became a multi-roomed chalet. "We know what happens is you get slow infrastructure creep," he says. Evidence here and overseas is that tourism developments end up distorting priorities of park staff into servicing visitors rather than the park's conservation and biodiversity needs, he says.

But market mechanisms are sometimes useful to manage visitor numbers and balance recreation with conservation priorities. Ruchel says licensing the Penguin Parade at Philip Island helped avert environmental disaster. "In the 1950s, people were running up and down the sand dunes with torches [to view the penguin colonies]," he says. While Christoff praises the move from "open slather" camping in Gippsland's Croajingolong National Park to a "lottery system, managing the numbers fairly while still providing good access".

Meanwhile, Gavin Ronan says the legislation to open parks to private investment doesn't go far enough. The operator of a Great Ocean Walk hiking business, which includes a lodge built on private land near Johanna in the Otways, he calls for additional reform of park tour operator licensing. Characterising the current system as open slather, he says parks are missing out on valuable revenue and quality control, to the cost of meaningful environmental management.

In Victoria, licences and user fees are capped at $12,755 a year, and in 2012-13, raised only $188,442, according to Parks Victoria.

"I think commercial access should be treated like a licence to fish or water access," Ronan says, pointing to schemes that raise many hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees operating in parks elsewhere, including Cradle Mountain.

A spokeswoman for the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service says licences for the exclusive use of a nominated area pay a percentage of annual gross turnover as a fee, with no cap.

Ronan says: "By making it fewer, and by making licensees pay more, you're going to get better quality experiences and better environmental management because you've got people who are going to make a long-term commitment."

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