Sustainability is no longer an optional extra

The release earlier this week of Australia's first ever National Sustainability Framework has laid out a vision for our nation to be a global leader in this space - and underlines just how important it is for destinations to think about the long-term viability of their tourism offerings. BRUCE PIPER investigates.

Sustainability – it’s a topic that is pretty easy to slip into an annual report, an aspirational vision statement or a policy document. Like motherhood, cuddly puppies and sunsets, we all feel warm and fuzzy about it, and we know the right words to use to assure those with whom we come into contact that we’re very much into “doing the right thing” – perhaps as long as it doesn’t impact our businesses or lives too much.

However it looks like the rubber may finally be hitting the road for Australian tourism in this space, with the formal release this week of a nationally endorsed framework with aspirations to guide the country’s entire tourism and travel ecosystem into a long-term future where all stakeholders and interests can survive and thrive for generations to come. While sustainability as an overall topic has strong connotations around the environment, as the new National Sustainability Framework for the Visitor Economy points out, it encompasses so much more, and while we naturally want to put efforts into saving the planet, the sustainability we really need to think about is that of tourism itself, because unless we make a concerted effort the halcon days where people travel during their downtime may be strictly limited.

After some years of joint development, the high level framework was formally endorsed by State and Territory government ministers at their regular Tourism Ministers Meeting in Cairns. Jointly hosted by Federal Minister for Trade and Tourism, Senator Don Farrell and Queensland MP Stirling Hinchliffe, the gathering also included the Northern Territory’s Joel Bowden, John Graham from NSW, South Australia’s Zoe Bettison, Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff, Steve Dimopoulos from Victoria and Rita Saffioti from Western Australia. In the absence of the ACT’s Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, VisitCanberra Executive Branch Manager Jonathan Kobus represented the nation’s capital at the event.

It’s definitely a united push, with all those in attendance agreeing that “sustainability is essential for the future success and competitiveness of Australia’s visitor economy”.

Make no mistake – what’s good for the environment is also good for the country. And that’s because consumers across the globe are “increasingly asking that world-class services are delivered in a way that is sensitive to the environment, to our culture and to our communities’ needs”. The newly released framework lays out a vision for Australia to be a leader in harnessing this trend, urging a nationally consistent approach to collaborate on making the visitor economy more sustainable.

The document notes the importance of action right now. “We must conserve and enhance our environment, culture and heritage for the generations and visitors to come,” it notes, with priorities including decarbonising the visitor economy, alongside increased efforts to respectfully recognise and embed First Nations’ cultures and perspectives into the sector’s operations.

With so many competing voices urging sustainability in different areas, the new Framework provides a single, clear and concise understanding of sustainable tourism and what it means for businesses in the Australian visitor economy. It includes four key pillars of sustainability:

  • Taking a managed approach – this involves embedding business practices and procedures to ensure sustainability goals are achieved;
  • Implementing environmental and climate action – by taking actiojn to protect wildlife and nature, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt and build resilience to climate change, responsibly use resources, reduce waste and recycle;
  • Respecting culture – by acknowledging and engaging appropriately with First Nations people and other cultural groups, and by helping to protect and preserve cultural heritage consistent with the principles of self-determination; and
  • Creating positive social impact – by working cooperatively and inclusively with visitors, employees, suppliers and local communities.

Beyond these top-line aspirations, each business in the visitor economy is likely to approach its individual sustainability journey differently. To that end, the initiative also includes a new Sustainable Tourism Toolkit, providing practical advice on implementing the pillars.

Notably, as well as measures that can be put in place within each operation, the Toolkit also offers recommendations on how to “promote your sustainable business” – to both customers and employees. It deals with the sticky topics of “greenwashing” (making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service or company), and its relatively new counterpart “greenhushing” (staying silent about genuine sustainability achievements, often because of fear of criticism for not doing enough).

Above all, the Framework makes clear that sustainability is everyone’s responsibility. As the old saying goes, the journey of 1,000 miles starts with one step, and this breakthrough initiative by Australia’s governments gives plenty of guidance as to how to take that baby-sized stride.

The National Sustainability Framework for the Visitor Economy can be downloaded here:

Practical guidance on where to start is in the new Sustainable Tourism Toolkit which is available online at:


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