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In this far-reaching and exclusive interview, PETER JOHNSON, the Owner of Diamond Waters Treehouse Retreat in Dunbogan in NSW, discusses the challenges facing domestic operators and highlights a major sustainable tourism event happening in Australia this month.


Q: During COVID, domestic travel obviously boomed but now it seems not only are Aussies going abroad for their holidays but the inbound market is slowing. How are these trends affecting locally run organisations like Diamond Waters?

A: I would doubt that any tourism operator is immune to this trend and the transition to lower demand has probably been highlighted by the comparison with the extraordinary high levels of domestic travel immediately after the COVID lockdowns.

Additionally, most places like ours have been seeing exponential rises in insurance costs following the bushfires and floods – so any drop in revenue is felt more acutely.

For those that have access to – and have worked hard on – their international markets, the downsizing of the domestic market has been moderated by higher levels of international visitors in the explorer self-drive market space.

These things go in cycles and notwithstanding another international ‘shockwave’, balance will be restored.

Q: Do you think that the COVID boom in domestic travel lulled some local operators into a false sense of security?

A: On reflection, I think most operators that benefitted from the COVID boom recognised the ‘sugar hit’ for what it was. However, the high workloads and long hours may have distracted some from adequately preparing and saving for the future.

It was important for operators to ‘bank’ some of the windfalls and to continue developing their product and marketing strategies for leaner times.

I do worry about those that may have recently invested in tourism based on the inflated domestic tourism cash flows post COVID.

Q: What steps do you take at Diamond Waters to ensure there are enough people coming through the gates on a regular basis?

A: It was evident to us well before borders re-opened that there would be a huge transition from the domestic to international market space.

We worked hard on maintaining contacts with our overseas agents and updating them on how we had developed and improved our product (like our wetland walkway, bird hide and health retreat space) during the closed borders period.

We wanted to appear as fresh, new, boutique and green as possible.

We did very little marketing in Australia during the post COVID boom. Instead, we were investing our time and resources into the international market space six months prior to the borders opening.

While not a new strategy, we have always focused on ‘repeat’ business and we have found that a large part of our current domestic business is from our loyal customer base – we have some guests that have visited six or seven times and also purchased gift vouchers for their friends and relatives. Workcation stays have also increased.

Q: For those who haven’t been to Diamond Waters, what kind of experience will visitors get?

A: We routinely analyse the ‘semantics’ of our customer feedback and the top three themes mentioned in both our external (social media) and internal feedback systems are:

1) Our service is highly personal

2) The environment is ‘it’s beautiful here’ and our commitment to sustainability and regenerative tourism is highly evident; and most importantly

3) The relaxation and rejuvenation experience of the Treehouses is vividly described by our guests.

We won Gold for Unique Accommodation in NSW 2023 and sit at No1 of 605 facilities in NSW in terms of guest satisfaction as measured by the Review Pro system – we have perfect 5/5 ratings on both Google and Trip Advisor.

The Treehouses sit in the middle of five hectares of sub-tropical rainforest, with 400 metres of wetlands and riverfront, a 10-minute walk to the beach and just one kilometre from cafes and restaurants.

It is a nature lover’s paradise and as many guests find, the perfect place for a ‘workcation’.

Q: You are also a board member of EcoTourism Australia, who are about to hold their inaugural 2024 Global Sustainable Tourism Summit in Brisbane. What do you hope comes out of it?

A: The Global Sustainable Tourism Summit is a chance for our operators, the tourism industry, sustainability leaders and government to collaborate and discuss the critical issues, the risks and opportunities for sustainable tourism development and success.

Following the theme “People, Planet, Place, Purpose,” the Summit will take a deep dive into how all sectors of the visitor economy can address the four pillars of sustainability by showcasing the latest innovations and examples from tourism operators, industry sectors and destinations that are delivering on world’s best practice in sustainability.

As the peak body for sustainable and ecotourism in Australia, we anticipate a detailed, lively and informative conversation with industry as we consider the urgency of sustainable tourism to meet the growing demands of both domestic and international travellers, as well as the importance of diverse markets, experiences and destinations to a strong visitor economy in Australia.

The Summit will be critical in helping to raise the profile of and grow sustainable tourism and ecotourism demand and product.

Our aim is that attendees are better equipped with a strong understanding of authentic sustainability and knowledge of how they can implement practical solutions to improve their efforts to propel Australia forward as a leader in sustainability and ecotourism.

Q: Is enough being done in Australia to encourage and promote sustainable tourism?

A: I ponder this question all the time and it goes hand in hand with “if we continue to compromise our environmental assets how vibrant will our future tourism industry be?”

There are some amazing and dedicated systems that have been in place for decades (e.g. Ecotourism Australia, Earthcheck) but supported by the dedicated few.

In recent times there has been a great deal of interest and activity by governments and others. While the vibe to do a lot more is encouraging, there is a continual need to critically review what is being done to minimise the risk of ’green washing’.

Tourism can be a great force for good in terms of regenerating damaged land. Gone should be the days of building so called ‘eco-resorts’ on pristine land.

Governments should be setting policies that encourage ‘regenerative tourism’ where tourism dollars can be harnessed to promote tourism assets that take damaged land and through tourism dollars, gradually regenerate the natural environment. Block by block, hectare by hectare, we can make a huge difference to biodiversity.

Fortunately, these days, you do not have to look too far to see a range of exciting projects led by dedicated people that have been harnessing tourism dollars for environmental good.