TOUGH TIMES IN ECOTOURISM
By ROGER FRYER
SUZANNE Button knows how tough the tourism market has become for nature-based businesses as the past two years has seen more than 50 per cent of local operators leave the industry.
"We have lost all our four-wheel-drive tours, two out of three dive businesses, 60 per cent of the whitewater rafters, and two out of three horse-riding businesses," she told a meeting of local ecotourism operators at a workshop last Thursday.
Ms Button is chair of the Coffs Coast Tourism Association and a principal of Liquid Assets, one of the remaining rafting companies on the Nymboida River.
Along with about 20 other Coffs Harbour ecotourism operators, Ms Button was pleased to finally talk to the Armidale organisers of the Waterfall Track project at the workshop at Southern Cross University.
The New England Ecotourism Society (NEES) has been funded to the tune of half a million dollars to develop an ecotourism strategy for the region based on the idea of a network of walking tracks from Walcha to Muttonbird Island.
But the feeling from the meeting was that NEES had 'lost its way' on the project since abandoning the idea of a single Waterfall Track as a marketing concept.
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"It has been nearly two years since there has been any direct conversation between local operators and Armidale," Ms Button said. "They may have been talking to councils, but not to people directly involved in the industry."
Like other operators at the workshop, Woolgoolga kayaker Sue Weber liked the original Waterfall Track concept although it had always been obvious it was not feasible to bulldoze a single track from Walcha to Coffs Harbour.
"But that was no reason to abandon the idea," Ms Weber said.
"It's still a good marketing concept, but we are uncomfortable with expanding NEES's charter to umbrella the whole industry, which is being marketed separately already," she said.
"It's important to respect existing operators who may not even be in the track corridor."
Ms Button also expressed concern that NEES appeared to be 'creating more product' at a time when existing operators needed their markets expanded.
The project manager, David Henderson from Armidale, apologised for the communication gap, explaining that NEES had been pre-occupied with details of their grant from the Regional Tourism Development Program, and the present round of workshops and industry audit would address the issue.
He also agreed with supporters at the meeting that the concept would gel when the branding process was undertaken.