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Creating sustainable visitor experiences

Wollumbin National Park

Wollumbin (Mount Warning) is a site recognised internationally for its significant natural and cultural values. Located in Northern NSW it is part of the Gondwana World Heritage Area and is a sacred place to the Bundjalung People. The activity of ascending the summit of Wollumbin, particularly during sunrise, became an iconic visitor experience attracting increasingly large numbers of visitors. Increased visitor numbers led to physical degradation of the highly significant cultural site, degradation of World Heritage natural values and major safety concerns including several deaths. This nature-based visitor experience was the almost singular focus of the local visitor economy with few identified alternative nature-based experiences.

This project aimed to identify visitor preferences for alternative experiences to summiting Wollumbin in order to facilitate more diverse regional tourism experiences and to address the significant site limitations of this World Heritage Area. The project team worked closely with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and engaged with key stakeholders to identify a range of potentially suitable alternative nature-based visitor experiences. From this, experience scenarios were developed to then test the preferences of potential visitors.

Overview of Impact

The findings from this research are guiding strategic planning, funding allocation and management approaches, particularly for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. The work has influenced the drafting of the new Plan of Management for Wollumbin, and become the foundation for a range of concept plans, funding applications and infrastructure investments, most recently (2018) the $7.4 million state government funded Tweed Byron Hinterland Trails project.

  • Local communities through the strengthening of their local economies, diversification of the visitor economy, provision of effective and appropriate infrastructure and visitor experiences, and protection of important cultural and natural sites
  • Traditional owners and Aboriginal custodians of the region
  • Domestic and international visitors
  • Tourism operators
  • Protected area managers, particularly the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, who is equipped with a rigorous yet very usable research base which is already influencing and guiding their planning and decision making
  • Local ecosystems, flora and fauna
  • World Heritage values
  • Students at Southern Cross University learning about sustainable tourism, planning and policy in undergraduate and postgraduate programs
  • Other regional stakeholder groups through having their voice and perspectives represented, not only in their current form but also in the context of regional tourism planning history.
Mt Wollumbin

The project’s key output was a series of three reports that provides an accessible though strong research base for evidence-based management and strategic investment decisions regarding the provision of nature-based tourism/leisure experiences and infrastructure. This one-stop resource first outlines the important historic context of previous strategic planning and management processes. Second, it provides a holistic compilation of diverse stakeholder views from Indigenous, tourism, government and other community representatives. Finally, it provides detailed evidence of visitor preferences for alternative activities and experiences as well as infrastructure considerations influencing such preferences.

The data arising from this project is challenging perceptions and fostering evidence-based management.  

The project has already influenced the new Plan of Management for Wollumbin and has strengthened focus on progressing specific infrastructure projects.The research has been used extensively in funding applications and the development of evidence-based and shovel-ready projects, culminating in 2018 with the funding announcement of the $7.4 million Tweed Byron Hinterland Trails project. This state government funded project, to be delivered over 4 years, will create a new signature four-day walk as well as upgrade and connect existing nature-based experiences with the aim to protect World Heritage and Aboriginal cultural values. The project seeks to redistribute the current unsustainable visitor pressures away from Wollumbin and encourage dispersal of coastal visitation particularly in the Byron Bay area. It is anticipated that the regional visitor economy will be boosted by extending visitor stays and bring economic benefits to local communities.

Other longer-term outcomes for the region include:

- a diversified palette of high quality and culturally appropriate nature-based tourism experiences;

- culturally sustainable tourism and leisure opportunities in protected areas;

- economic resilience through diversification of the visitor economy; and

- improved cross-jurisdictional collaboration and engagement.

The project emerged in 2013 after the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service approached researchers at Southern Cross University in relation to a locally significant management issue: the closure of the Wollumbin (Mt Warning) summit track due to a major storm event. The dramatic downturn in visitor related business to the local area following the closure of this important attraction, which annually attracted an estimated 100,000 international, regional and local visitors, highlighted an unhealthy reliance of local business on a single attraction, arising from a distinct lack of alternative nature-based visitor experiences on offer in the region.

In response to the initial approach, Dr Pascal Scherrer facilitated the development of a research proposal by working closely with NPWS managers to transform their raw vision into rigorous research. The tailor-made project team of SCU researchers formed a solid platform of mutual respect and integrity in research and practice which  continued to improve the project and was vital in ensuring that the project delivered rigorous, defendable and usable results.

The resulting NPWS funded project “Identifying Visitor Preferences for Alternative Experiences to Summiting Wollumbin (Mt Warning)” identified and tested activities and scenarios of visitor experiences in the region as potential alternatives to the experience of summiting Wollumbin. Stakeholders (including representatives from local government, tourism and Indigenous community members) were involved in the project via face-to-face interviews (22); and online surveys of current visitors (990) and potential visitors (1300) to Wollumbin (Mt Warning).

The praxis-focused project was theoretically sound and academically strong - facilitating a series of academic publications, yet with immediate and highly relevant practical and management outcomes. The project continues to directly influence the draft management plan for the area and strategic infrastructure investment

The team of SCU researchers who contributed to the Alternative Experiences to Summiting Wollumbin (Mt Warning) project included Dr Pascal Scherrer (Project Leader), Professor Betty Weiler, Associate Professor Erica Wilson, Dr Brent Moyle, Dr Rod Caldicott, Dr Noah Nielsen and Dr Monica Torland. In addition, the team acknowledges the input from senior managers and staff from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service as well as the many people representing a variety of stakeholder groups who generously gave up their time to participate in this research.

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