The growing popularity of Australia as a tourist destination is largely attributable to its remarkable natural environment, particularly its spectacular coastline and coral reefs. Ecotourism encompasses activities such as structured environmental education programs for tourists, ranging from whale-watching excursions to involvement of volunteers in research, and a host of other activities designed to provide visitors with access to, and information about, natural features in a low impact manner. Ecotourism is differentiated from education in that academic credit is not given to programs in ecotourism.
With the rapid growth in the ecotourism industry since 1990, a great variety of educational experiences relying on verbal and practical demonstrations await the traveller. While boat skippers and trained guides can provide valuable information about the local environment, there is increasing demand for high quality information, at various levels of sophistication, to be provided by people with a more global understanding of their discipline. This knowledge is usually acquired through degree programs.
Students planning a career in ecotourism should be aware that employment in some areas is seasonal. They should look not only for training which allows them to interpret a particular environment, but should also seek some technical or management training to increase the likelihood of continuity in employment during any seasonal hiatus. This wider training allows workers in ecotourism to further their careers by moving into management. All ecotourism employees require excellent communication skills.
In addition to the large number of private tourist operators that employ 'environmental interpreters', many government agencies also provide interpretive services to the public. These include the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Australian Antarctic Division, departments of environment and conservation, and local authorities. An interpretive officer is usually required to hold a bachelors degree and some may also require a Diploma in Education. Employment in a government agency can provide opportunities for involvement in ecotourism at all levels, from the production of published materials, to oral presentations and management. A period of employment in this capacity is well regarded in the private sector of the industry. A listing of ecotourism operators may be obtained from the Ecotourism Association of Australia.
The greatest concentrations of potential employers in the private sector are in Queensland's urban centres adjacent to, or on the resort islands of, the Great Barrier Reef. However, equally fascinating coastal and island areas in all other states are now providing a focus for the development of ecotourism, for example in the area of whale watching. In all of these activities, there is a need for environmental educators, researchers and managers to ensure that the impact of tourists is controlled and minimised.
Photo: Visitors are increasingly seeking high quality information about marine systems, such as this group learning about geological processes affecting coastal environments.