Sustainable tourism ecopreneurs: transforming the way the world travels

Tourism and conservation might seem at odds, but with more than 1.1 billion tourists travelling every year and a growing demand for environmentally and culturally responsible tourism, the sector is poised to have a positive impact on nature – if the right people get involved.

According to Leonie Bowles, Corporate Partnerships Officer with Conservation Volunteers Australia and Project Officer – National Landscapes with Ecotourism Australia, tourism needs ecopreneurs,’ people with not only the credentials, but the strategic vision to unite people around sustainability.

Leonie’s words give insight into sustainable tourism careers and how conservationists with an affinity for leadership, business or marketing can create positive change.


Sustainable tourism comes back to having a positive impact on the community that you visit and the environment that you interact with. You’re not taking away, you’re giving back.”

Any time you travel you have an impact, Leonie says, but that impact can be lessened or even become positive if you travel sustainably and support good practices. Volunteer tourism takes the idea of giving back a step further, by getting your hands dirty and being actively involved.

Until recently, environmental sustainability wasn’t a mainstream concern for tourism markets like China, Singapore and Japan. But in 2015, the Australian Tourism Exchange, which brings together thousands of tourism businesses, saw a huge growth in demand for certified operators and authentic travel experiences over package tours.

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Many Australian landscapes stand to benefit from sustainable tourism, like this beach on Stradbroke Island.


“Sustainable tourism takes people out of their norm and gives them a chance to really focus on what they’re experiencing.”

Leonie was drawn to sustainable tourism because she saw how it could have an impact by affecting people in their daily lives. She describes this kind of tourism as a powerful tool for creating experiences that can translate into positive action back at home.


We work with corporate partners to engage projects that are win-win-win.”

As Corporate Partnerships Officer with Conservation Volunteers Australia, an organisation that connects volunteers with nature through conservation projects, Leonie helps build and maintain corporate partnerships to ensure that environmental projects can happen.

It’s really about creating wins for everyone involved, she explains. “We create wins for local communities and environmental projects, for corporate partners who may wish to engage a sector of the community or restore a parcel of land, and for volunteers who connect into those projects to make a difference.”

“Ecotourism ventures often start with one or two people who want to do the right thing but may not know where to start.”

Leonie also works with Ecotourism Australia (EA), the not-for-profit industry association for environmentally responsible tourism in Australia. EA designs and delivers certification programs in areas such as environmental sustainability, climate action and respect for Indigenous culture, with over 550 operators certified to date.

As Industry Development Manager, Leonie has mentored tourism operators, helping them to become certified and achieve environmental, social and cultural benefits.

Landscapes like Rainbow Beach on Australia’s Sunshine Coast have both environmental and cultural values.

Landscapes like Rainbow Beach on Australia’s Sunshine Coast have both environmental and cultural values.

“When people do good and people get behind it, it can be really significant.”

Pennicott Wilderness Journeys in Tasmania is just one example of an incredible ecotourism success story. Started as a one-man band by Robert Pennicott in 1999, today the company runs five tours and provides donations and sponsorships to diverse community groups, from schools to charities. It has won the Australian Tourism Award for Excellence in Sustainable Tourism three years in a row and has helped the Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service eradicate a feral species off Tasman Island, saving 50,000 breeding seabirds each year.


“If you want a business that does good, you need to build a really good business.”

Conservationists with an interest in sustainable tourism already bring scientific expertise, but can give themselves an edge with knowledge and skills in business management, strategic thinking, customer service, marketing and understanding tourism trends.

Environmental, social and cultural sustainability have to start with economic sustainability, Leonie explains. “If operators can’t pay their staff and vehicles or maintain accommodation, then they don’t even have the opportunity to make a difference.”

Some of the most successful ecotourism businesses in Australia are led by what Leonie calls ‘ecopreneurs’ – people with not only amazing hearts, but the charismatic personalities and entrepreneurialism to communicate their passion, become profitable and achieve their vision.

“What’s the why?”

Of more than 222 million community investment dollars donated by Australia and New Zealand’s corporate sector in 2015, only three percent went to environmental causes. Environmental non-profits must constantly innovate and adapt to engage new sectors and supporters. Often this comes down to communicating their work in a way that doesn’t just make people think, ‘Should I get involved? but ‘How can I not be involved?

Sharing a message in a compelling way, running creative campaigns and showcasing video testimonies can all help justify environmental causes and achieve wider change, Leonie says. Having marketing and communications expertise, such as social media skills or graphic design, can help a non-profit put the right words and images to their why – and make you more employable.


“For the first time, we had protected area management agencies talking to commercial tour operators, talking to regional tourism organisations, talking to local council.”

Leonie, whose favourite travel experience is hiking in Chamonix at the junction of France, Switzerland and Italy, says that tourism has a unique way of bringing people together.

Leonie hiking in Chamonix. Photo courtesy of Leonie Bowles.

Leonie hiking in Chamonix. Photo courtesy of Leonie Bowles.

Large initiatives like Ecotourism Australia’s National Landscapes Program, which develops tourism strategies in 16 landscapes across Australia, can give diverse stakeholders a reason to collaborate and share ideas. Individual operations, like Pennicott Wilderness Journeys, can strengthen local communities, restore habitats and build environmental awareness.

“I think that’s what its really about for me – it’s about everyone doing a little and achieving a lot.”

To learn more about careers in sustainable tourism, check out these blog posts:

Conservation careers in ecotourism.

Storytelling for a sustainable world – a career marketing tourism.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Ecotourism