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Changing Perceptions Through Ecotours

Volume 1 Number 1 - April 2004

Rusty Worsman and Karen Gray



Résumé en Français

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Mount Tomah Botanic Garden is the cool climate garden of the Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney.  It is located 100 kilometres west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains at an altitude of 1000 metres. The Garden has a representation of mainly Gondwanan flora.  In 1994 a spectacular 186 hectare property adjoining the Garden was purchased primarily to access water.  The property contains a stunning array of Australian flora in a rugged Blue Mountains landscape.  

The Mount Tomah Ecotour concept has been developed in consultation with tourism groups and the University of Western Sydney.  Ecotourism involves interpretation of natural and cultural environments and ecologically sustainable management of the natural area being visited. Ultimately it is hoped that people on these tours will have an experience which changes their outlook or behaviour in some way.  The concept of ecotourism complements the Mission of the Trust: “To inspire the appreciation and conservation of plants”.

Imagine walking into a forest with tree ferns towering ten or more metres above your head.  It is cool despite the summer heat, as the canopy begrudgingly allows sun to filter through to the forest floor. As you walk along the track a lyrebird whistles evocatively down the valley.  This is the Mount Tomah Ecotour....

The Tomah Ecotour is a new experience to expand the educational opportunities for visitors to Mount Tomah Botanic Garden.  The Ecotour is a four kilometre guided tour through the diverse ecosystems of the 186 hectare conservation area. This is surrounded by the National Parks that are part of Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (encompassing over 1 million ha.).  An important aim of the Tomah Ecotour is to fulfil the corporate mission of the Botanic Gardens Trust Sydney:  “To work with the community to increase the knowledge and appreciation of plants and their critical role in the sustainability of our natural and urban environments, and to manage our open spaces as inspirational places for recreation, cultural events and celebration”. Natural areas managed by botanic gardens present a perfect opportunity to provide a broader educational focus, to present a range of ecosystems for the study of ecology (White, 1996).

This article highlights the philosophy for establishing the Tomah Ecotour, the processes involved in the development and management of the Ecotour and key lessons learnt along the way.

Why Ecotourism?

The tourism industry’s growth brings with it a need to protect the environment to ensure its future success - as a large part of the industry exists chiefly because of the attractiveness and quality of the environment (Stabler 1997). The Blue Mountains region supports an extensive tourist industry and is famous for its adventure and nature-based activities such as canyoning, climbing, bush walking and mountain biking. Nature based tourism often relies more on the ‘wow’ of the nature without any interpretation. Ecotourism is distinct from other forms of nature based tourism in that it involves interpretation of natural and cultural environments and ecologically sustainable management of the natural area being visited. It supports conservation and brings benefits to the local community (Beeton 1998).

The definition of Ecotourism differs throughout the world, however it is generally considered to be environmentally and socially responsible travel that minimises negative impacts and promotes conservation (Stemm, 2003). Ecotourism represents only a small segment of the tourist industry, but, it is well recognised that the philosophy and principles of Ecotourism need to be practiced by the broader industry. This is the most appropriate form of tourism for meeting the Mount Tomah Garden’s conservation objectives. 

Where to Start?

Visitors to Mount Tomah Botanic Garden were surveyed to assess their interest in participating in an ecotour. The Ecotour product needed to be defined: what should be offered?  What would be the tour options? How long should it be? Who was our target market?  Links were made with the local tourism industry to understand the local market and assist in promotion. The trail was constructed by selecting the most appropriate route to minimise any environmental impact. The track width was limited to one person to reduce the need for vegetation clearance and enhance the wilderness experience of the tour. Research was conducted to develop the most effective interpretation for the tour, such as sourcing local history and talking to the local community. Promotional material including a brochure and website was then designed and produced.

Local Networks

The Mount Tomah Ecotour concept has been developed in consultation with tourism groups and the University of Western Sydney - Hawkesbury. An important network was created between Ecotourism Operators in the Blue Mountains and members of C.A.S.T. (Community Alliance for Sustainable Tourism) who represent different segments of the industry including accommodation, tours, Blue Mountains City Council and tourism centres. This network provides the opportunity to stay updated with trends in the industry, local issues and, most importantly, to provide a cohesive voice to strengthen the ecotourism philosophy in an area which has predominantly nature-based tourism. This is even more relevant now the local area is World Heritage listed.

Interesting partnerships have developed in the process of delivering the ecotourism product. From the initial stages a strong link with the University of Western Sydney - Hawkesbury - was formed with the Tourism Faculty in the School of Environment and Agriculture. Students and staff specialising in ‘Environmental Management and Tourism’ have provided support in several ways including track development, research, marketing, interpretation and more recent projects in management planning. Working with the Ecotour has enabled students to obtain training and a range of experiences within the industry.


Visitors have the opportunity to experience the spectacular environment, with interpretation provided by their education officer guide. The many points of interest include:

  • The fact that Mount Tomah has approximately 500 species of plants due to the geomorphological changes across the site from basalt to shale and then sandstone. The temperate rainforest section of the walk is a similar environment to that in which the rare and endangered Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis) was found growing in 1994. Visitors at the beginning of each tour are given the chance for an intimate encounter with an uncaged Wollemia.
  • The reasons for listing the Greater Blue Mountains as a World Heritage Area.
  • How to identify plants used by the Darug, the local indigenous people, for food and tool making.  
  • How the land was used since occupation by Europeans.   

The presentation is delivered in an enjoyable, friendly and engaging manner and pitched at the appropriate level so all visitors leave with not only interesting information, but also an understanding of the intrinsic value of conservation and the role they can play. This is easy to present in such a spectacular setting.

Over four hours the tour passes through such diverse habitats as rainforest, woodland and heath. Interpretation is flexible according to what is seen. For example, on occasions large black cockatoos fly overhead providing us with an opportunity to stop and discuss the importance of hollows in old trees for their nesting. This links directly with regional land management issues of tree clearing and fire management.

Management Issues

Visitor effect is monitored to minimise negative impacts. Groups are limited to a maximum of 12 people, as recommended in current industry research. Track management includes erosion monitoring, measuring leaf litter, resting the track during the off-season, water quality assessment and using other indicators to identify environmental impacts (Hammitt & Cole, 1998). The initial carrying capacity of the Ecotour, with the current track construction, is estimated at 1,000 people per annum. This represents a maximum of three groups per week. To date this has not been exceeded, with approximately three hundred visitors since the tour was launched in 1998.

The Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney is committed to environmental responsibility in all operations and programs as well as within the Ecotourism program. The everyday running of the tour adheres strictly to the philosophy and principles of ecotourism.  For example, materials used on the tour are recycled or composted in the Garden’s worm farm, high standards of safety are ensured with an appropriate clothing and equipment list given to visitors prior to their visit, materials and staff are locally sourced where possible and guides communicate to visitors the need to ‘tread lightly on the landscape’.


Experience has indicated that the term ‘Ecotour’ might inhibit people from joining the tour as they may not have an understanding of the concept of ‘Ecotourism’. Recent comments at the Conference on Ecotourism in Australia indicated that there is a need to raise the awareness of the general concept of ecotourism. Currently we are exploring marketing the Tomah Ecotour using the title ‘Wilderness and Wildflowers’. The benefit of Ecotour Accreditation is also being investigated through the Ecotourism Association of Australia and Green Globe. This would include raising the profile of green tourism and environmental best practice. Ultimately the whole of Mount Tomah Botanic Garden, as a major tourist attraction in the Blue Mountains, may obtain Ecotourism accreditation.  

In offering these tours the Mount Tomah Botanic Garden envisage that visitors to this area will have an experience that changes their outlook in regard to the environment, encouraging them to take responsibility for their actions and assist in the conservation of  all environments.


Beeton, S.  1998, Ecotourism - A practical guide for rural communities, Landlinks Press, Collingwood, Australia.
Hammitt, W. E. & Cole, D. N.  1998, Wildland Recreation: Ecology and Management, 2nd Ed., John Wiley & Sons, Canada.
Stabler, M. J. 1997, Tourism and Sustainability - Principles and Practice, CAB International, UK.
Stemm, C. J., Lassoie, J. P., Lee, D. R. and Deshler, D. J.  2003, ‘How Eco is Ecotourism? A Comparitive Case Study of Ecotourism in Costa Rica’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Vol. 11, No. 4. 
  White, P. S.  1996, 'In search of the conservation garden', Public Garden, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 11.



Le jardin botanique du mont Tomah est le jardin de climat froid du Botanic Gardens Trust de Sydney. Il est situé à 100 km à l’ouest de Sydney, dans les Blues Moutains, à une altitude de 1000 mètres. Le jardin présente surtout la flore du Gondwana. En 1994, une remarquable propriété de 186 hectares attenante au jardin a été acquise essentiellement pour disposer de ressources en eau. La propriété abrite une formidable collection de plantes australiennes poussant dans un paysage accidenté des Blue Moutains.

Le principe de l’écotour du mont Tomah a été élaboré en consultant des agences de tourisme et de l’Université de Western Sydney. L’écotourisme implique l’interprétation de l’environnement naturel et culturel et la gestion écologiquement durable des aires naturelles visitées. En fin de compte, les concepteurs espèrent que les participants à ces tours auront vécu une expérience qui change réellement leur regard et leurs habitudes. Le concept d’écotourisme complète la mission du Trust qui est : "Favoriser la compréhension des plantes et de leur conservation".


El Jardín Botánico Mount Tomah es el jardín de clima templado del fideicomiso de jardines botánicos de Sidney (Botanic Gardens Trust). Se localiza a 100 km al oeste de Sidney en las Montañas Azules a una altitud de 1000 m. El jardín tiene representada principalmente la flora de Gondwana. En 1994, se adquirió una espectacular propiedad de 186 hectáreas adjuntas al jardín botánico con el fin de tener acceso al agua. La prpopiedad tiene un arreglo asombroso de la flora australiana en el rugoso paisaje de esta Montañas.

El concepto de ecotour de Mount Tomah se desarrolló con asesoría de grupos de turismo de la Universidad de Occidente de Sidney (University of  Western Sydney). El ecoturismo involucra la interpretación de ambientes tanto naturales como culturales así como del manejo ecológicamente sustentable del área natural visitada. Se espera que la gente que participa en estos ecotours pueda eventualmente experimentar cambios en su percepción del ambiente y en sus hábitos. El concepto de ecoturismo complementa la misión del fideicomiso: “Inspirar el aprecio y la conservación de plantas".

About the Authors

Rusty Worsman and Karen Gray are Community Education Officers at Mount Tomah Botanic Garden
Mount Tomah Botanic Garden,
Bells Line of Road via Bilpin
NSW Australia 2758
Tel: 02 4567 3015