Martin Chambers

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Careful of Glamour Backpacking

Be careful of glamour backpacking!

In December 2015 the Three Capes walking track opened in Tasmania, from Fortescue Bay to Cape Pillar, overlooking Tasman Island, and finishing with a boat trip to Port Author. On this four day walk you are greeted by a ranger as you arrive at each of the three huts - with heating, a comfy bed and basic cooking facilities that you will share with up to 15 others. All you need carry is a change of clothes and your food. At $500 per person it is either a pretty good value wilderness experience or an expensive cheap hotel. Welcome to glamour packpacking.

It is promised that the more hard core will still be able to walk this trail without paying out big money – as they have been doing for many years. But like the Milford Track, or Tasmania’s Overland Track, the experience will be forever altered. These wilderness without the effort walks are such that these two mentioned, and many others, become so popular that it is only permitted to walk them in one direction and you have to book your place months in advance. This is because the commercial enterprise operating them will promote the activity until capacity is reached.  In places where one of the values sought is isolation and wilderness one method to manage the popularity is to create one way traffic and limit numbers during peak season.

The argument is that the natural area belongs to all and those without the skill or fitness have a right to go there too. But if it is true that people with money and ill-fitting boots have as much right to visit areas of natural beauty as the rest of us, what then of the next level - the elderly or the disabled and those unable to walk the few kilometers even if someone else carries their backpack? If the justification for these glamour camping sites is based on the premise of equal access the argument is flawed for there will always be another level for whom the limited facilities are not enough.

Equally, the justification for these small scale developments as revenue for an underfunded Parks Authority is faulty. For if the rent fails to capitalize on the monopoly position we are selling the public short, and yet if we charge the true value, these lodges and glamping sites are unaffordable to most, creating precisely the exclusivity we have argued is unfair.

This is not to say that facilities should not be built in places where existing visitation puts pressure on the environment, but there is a big difference between allowing a commercial tour business to build a private wilderness lodge on public land, and installing toilets at a popular lookout.

Around the world there is a reported trend towards luxury backpacking, glamour camping - or ‘Glamping’. As a tourist trend it probably originated from the South African safari camps, where luxury tented accommodation affords a way to view exotic wildlife, a closer-to-nature experience that might not be had if a luxury hotel was built.

Despite the fact that it probably costs more to house you in a tent than a hotel room (if there was one) at one of these safari camp– due to the extra staff and wildlife security and the fact that tent canvas wears out, in this case the value added to the experience is great because of the tented accommodation. You would choose - if the tent and the hotel room were the same price - the tent experience. What a thrill to sleep with only a sliver of canvas between you and sharp-toothed tigers!

In many other places these camps are labeled as Eco lodges, a low impact way to sleep comfortably in the wilderness. But as a permanent accommodation a tent is not necessarily a more ecological construction and any wilderness site offering overnight accommodation to tourists can hardly call itself low impact if they serve steak for dinner with chilled chardonnay or a cold beer. These things are nice but they are not low impact and it would be a joke to sleep in a tent and think it was.

Neither would a tent be our first choice of accommodation. At Karijini in Western Australia’s Pilbara, the Eco Retreat offers a luxury tent for the night. Billed as the ‘greener’ alternative, these effectively permanent erections provide little that a solid structure would not. Unilke at a South African safari camp where the wildlife is all around, at Karijini the sights are several kilometers away and the cool of evening will be spent relaxing at the bricks and mortar bar and restaurant. Maybe ‘eco’ is simply an excuse not to provide air-conditioning but charge hotel room prices.

The only other accommodation site for Karijini is the Dales Gorge camping area. In season it is full to overflowing every night. It is far more popular than the Eco Retreat, proving that people don’t choose glamping where they don’t have to.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the Eco Lodge at Karijini. The food is good and the place is comfortable and relaxing and well run. But if there was a nearby alternative, such as a cheap camping area or an ‘environmentally friendly’ motel, as a business the Eco Lodge would be in trouble. As leaseholders on National Park land, the Eco Lodge is subject to restrictions and costs that a private operator outside the park would not be.

The Eco Lodge at Karijini is owned by the indigenous people and you’d be pretty rotten to set up against them even if you could get planning permission, but my point here is that if a private landholder could compete, and didn’t have those restrictions, they could offer better facilities and/or a lower price. Why would you stay within the National Park? The answer of course is location.

In real estate, location is everything : good real estate demands higher rent. How much more should the rent be to be just inside the park boundary at Karijini? Not much. But, what would the reasonable rent for a wilderness lodge on Cape Pillar be? To reflect the true value of the location the Cape Pillar rent would have to be so high as to ensure that the experience is far from ‘access for everyone’. Even at the current $500 for four days this is a walk only for the wealthy.

Closer to my home is Rottnest Island: expressions of interest have been called to provide glamping behind Pinky’s beach. Camping on Rottnest used to be wonderful. Sand everywhere, quokka’s stealing the food, salt in your hair and queuing for the showers. If only we had glamping back then. Well, we sort of did. The semi-permanent tents that we used to rent are now the Caroline-Thompson cabins and the reason they are now self contained hard-walled units is that if they want paid accommodation visitors prefer an air-conditioned room in summer and in winter, something more than canvas. In peak season whatever they can get that does not cost the earth. Again, a tent is not the natural first choice so why would anyone think that a glamping site behind Pinky’s beach would be successful?

This Pinky’s Beach site will probably lie vacant all winter. The problem is that aside from the capital cost of construction it will be as expensive to operate the business as any other of the accommodation services – cleaning, power and water, booking fees, marketing and administration are all the same. And given that the existing alternative accommodation is already built - the cost of construction is a sunk cost – so for example the moment one room at the lodge is vacant it can be offered at a massive discount and still contribute to margin.

Of course if the glamping operator is smart they will link their accommodation offering to some sort of eco-activity that appeals to the types of customers that are attracted to the luxury tenting concept. Walking, diving, kayaking eco tours perhaps? But ultimately, why would a dive trip or walk tour on Rottnest be improved by staying in a tent, no matter how glamorous the tent? It isn’t, and we are back to competing on the basis of accommodation.

Except of course, if the operator is a slick marketer. I note, early 2017 and the Pinky’s Beach site has not even been built yet but is already on the Lonely Planet top ten.

Just as you can call a tent city an Eco Lodge so too can you paint a breeze block hotel an environmental shade of green, plant trees, and call it Eco Retreat. It is called marketing.

Glamping sites and lodges built on public land, such as the huts now built for the Three Capes Walk in Tasmania, are business ventures no less than a hotel or restaurant is no matter who owns or operates them, or where they are. We accept them because somehow a glamping site or an eco lodge is perceived as less invasive than a hotel and the operator of a walking tour is more acceptable on public land than other forms of commerce.

But in that regard we are also being marketed to. It is development, whether it be a tent called glamping or a wooden hut called wilderness retreat. If they are successful merely because there is no alternative it does not make a business case for the model. A glamping tent will become a permanent hut once the economic reality of maintenance is realized. The footprint will be permanent staff, water, sewerage, wifi dish, showers, rubbish disposal, a heli pad for re-supply and emergency evacuation. For all that this creates freedom of access for all it also reduces the amenity for all.

The downside is that these locations will never be the same. At best, crowded. At worst, off limits. Pinky’s beach will no longer be secluded. When we walked the Milford track some years ago we were instructed not to go near the commercial lodges where people had paid for their sense of seclusion. On busy areas of the Appalachian Trail, weekend visitors are given accommodation priority over end to end walkers and in many places camping is no longer permitted, meaning long haul hikers must beg to sleep in the wood shed.

Sure, all people are allowed and should be encouraged to visit areas of natural beauty in ways that impact a little as possible. We do all enjoy some level of facility and some people require more than others. Roads, carparks, toilets, the steel ladders up the side of the Kalbarri Gorge, signage, and the Bibbulmun Track and Munda Biddi huts. But there is a very big difference between providing facilities for all and providing a licence to a sole operator to build and operate facilities for the exclusive use of only their clients, justifying it by saying that those clients are those who would ordinarily not be able to do the activity. While creating access for one group the very thing another group desires has been lost.

This leads us to ask who we have reserved these areas for in the first place. Is it for the wilderness seeker who wishes to get away from it all? End to end walks or the weekend getaway? Is it for the wealthy who can pay more and hence contribute more towards the overall management? As soon as we preference one group we alienate another. We need to recognize that in truth it is for our collective great-grandchildren that National Parks are created.

Governments set aside areas as National Parks and reserves and we have international treaties to preserve cross border ecosystems. There is almost universal acceptance of the need to preserve at least some natural places, not, in the immediate, for the value they pose to people, but for the unique natural features themselves and types of landscape, the animals and birds, plants. Both the large and small and the rare and the common deserve a place to live and it is for this that the areas are set aside from development.

Management effort ought to be primarily directed at this and not the development by stealth that glamping or wilderness lodges represent. That people go to see these is a consequence of there being less and less of these places left and it is not that we should discourage visitors, but that we should be aware of exactly what it is that we have and why these places were set aside in the first place.

When there is not enough money (and what government department ever has enough?) to adequately manage the reserves the temptation is to find other forms of funding and one of them is to lease areas to private operators who will build an acceptable ‘low key’ lodge and run ‘Eco’ tours. They might even call it glamping and tell you it is the latest international trend, and we might even think it is a pretty good deal because money is coming in and we can spend a night in luxury feeling good about our low impact holiday. But all we have really done is sold off part of what we wanted to preserve, and the money will never adequately compensate for the loss.

If we really desire glamping sites and wilderness lodges they should primarily be built on private land.