The Victorian shire of East Gippsland has emerged as a leader of sustainable tourism and nature-based tourism experiences – and is reaping environmental and economic benefits after becoming the first in the state to achieve ECO Destination recognition from the nation’s peak body for ecotourism and sustainable tourism, Ecotourism Australia. 

Spanning the traditional lands of the Gunaikurnai, Bidawel and Monero people, the shire is a natural fit for ECO Destination status. It boasts impressive ecosystems, including the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve of Croajingolong National Park; the culturally significant Buchan Caves; Raymond Island with its Koala Trail; the Alpine High Country; the expansive Gippsland Lakes; and untamed Ninety Mile Beach.  

But attaining the required standards to be recognised as a global leader in sustainable tourism was no easy feat.

In partnership with Ecotourism Australia and WWF-Australia, and with assistance from the Australian Wildlife & Nature Recovery Fund, East Gippsland Shire Council began pursuing ECO Destination Certification soon after the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires. 

Council quickly garnered support from stakeholders such as the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC); Victoria’s Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA); Parks Victoria; peak regional tourism organisation Destination Gippsland; as well as local businesses and community groups.

Ecotourism Australia visited the shire on multiple occasions, meeting with Council and locals, and carrying out a rigorous assessment spanning 91 criteria, focusing on nature-based tourism, cultural and natural interpretation, education and sustainable community practices. Ecotourism Australia CEO Elissa Keenan announced East Gippsland’s Certification some three years later, at the Inspire East Gippsland Tourism Summit in 2023.

“We’re delighted to recognise East Gippsland as the first ECO Destination in Victoria and a global leader in best-practice sustainability and destination management,” said Elissa Keenan, CEO of Ecotourism Australia.

Today, the certification recognises that East Gippsland as a nature-based tourism destination committed to the active involvement of Council and local businesses in sustainable practices. Through regular auditing, the East Gippsland region is able to maintain its commitment while also implementing the latest best-practices in sustainable tourism.

Other Victorian shires have now started their own ECO Destination Certification process, and the sense among councils is that recognition as an ecotourism and sustainable tourism destination will come to be seen as a must-have in the near future.

Combined effort

The shire joins only six other regions across Australia with this prestigious certification: Coffs Coast, Central Coast, and the Blue Mountains in New South Wales; Bundaberg and Port Douglas Daintree in Queensland; and Augusta-Margaret River in Western Australia. 

The shire has established itself on the global map as a destination for a new kind of traveller who aims to tread lightly. 

“Being the first in Victoria to achieve this standard is a milestone achievement and we’re proud to have supported this region, in partnership with WWF-Australia, through a bushfire recovery fund, to help them build back better,” Ms Keenan said.

“Australia is a destination of nature and ecotourism experiences and it’s important that destinations adopt a sustainable management focus to meet visitors’ growing demand for responsible tourism as well as to ensure ongoing positive contributions to the environment, culture and community of their region.

“East Gippsland’s ECO Destination Certification ensures sustainable tourism remains part of the story of the region and inspires local businesses and the community to maintain good practices and implement sustainable tourism standards,” Ms Keenan added.

Natural fit

Some eight months after achieving ECO Destination status, Council now sees the certification as a natural extension of its ongoing commitment to responsible tourism. 

Mayor Cr Tom Crook said that the certification, while challenging to attain, has already proven vital in showcasing the region to both a national and global audience, with the wider Gippsland area achieving an uptick in visitor numbers of around 22 per cent on the previous year (as at September 2023) in the most recent audit by Tourism Research Australia

Tourism awards have also followed, with Lakes Entrance on the Gippsland Lakes celebrated as a finalist at the 2023 TAC Victorian Top Tourism Town Awards; marketing body Destination Gippsland named as the gold medal winner in the Qantas Australian Tourism Awards for tourism marketing and campaigns “All Kinds of Wonder”; and won the Australian Marketing Institute Awards for Marketing and brand revitalisation.  

“East Gippsland has long been offering world-class, nature-based outdoor experiences and official recognition of the region’s commitment to sustainability will bolster its visitor economy,” Destination Gippsland CEO Terry Robinson said.

“Ecotourism has become one of the fastest-growing sectors of Australia’s tourism industry. Travellers are hungry for sustainable tourism experiences and ECO Destination Certification will give East Gippsland’s nature-based tourism sector and the region a well-earned boost.”

In addition to Council gaining certification, several East Gippsland local businesses are undergoing the ECO Certification process, which certifies nature tourism products at global best-practice standards against the four pillars of sustainability: environmental impacts; socio-economic impacts; cultural impacts and sustainable management.

Buchan a leading destination

Buchan’s commitment to preserving its natural heritage has seen it emerge as a key tourist draw for eco-friendly tourists. The culturally significant Buchan Caves Reserve, on Krauatungalung Country, features limestone formations that date back some 400 million years. The caves reserve is ECO Certified by Ecotourism Australia and committed to sustainable practices and provides high-quality nature-based tourism experiences that have made it a must-visit destination. 

While the town centre is open for business, the caves reserve is temporarily closed due to a recent flooding event, other wonders, such as nearby W Tree Falls with its cascading two-tier 20m waterfall, the ruggedly beautiful Snowy River National Park and Little River Gorge – Victoria’s deepest at 600m deep, offer wild adventures an easy drive from town.

North of Buchan, adventurers can delve into the wonders of the Snowy River National Park, experiencing the diverse ecosystems that make East Gippsland a haven for sustainable tourism. 

Economic benefits

With projects such as the redevelopment of Buchan – a process that predates the renewal of the area following the floods – a 121km network of mountain bike trails in Omeo, Timber Transition projects that support towns to transition away from native timber harvesting, and Council-backed tourism forums, expos, events and advice, East Gippsland’s tourism sector points toward a promising future. 

In the pursuit of a sustainable future, East Gippsland has positioned itself as a global leader in eco-friendly travel. As travellers seek authentic and responsible experiences, the region, guided by its ECO Destination Certification, stands ready to showcase the perfect balance between a healthy environment and a robust tourist economy.

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