Responsible tourism on the Great Ocean Road

Hiring a car and heading off on the Great Ocean Road is one of those trips that bucketlisters love to tick off whilst Down Under. But if you’ve only got eyes for the Twelve Apostles and just have to get back to Melbourne in a day’s drive then pull up the hand brake as this one might not be for you.

Spending more time in the region is a really important part of traveling responsibly in Australia. You’ll not only get to know local hosts and stay in small, out of the way, townships but you’ll also be able to experience the natural environment, and wildlife, after the crowds have gone home.

Joining a small group (maximum eight travelers) allows you to appreciate the area in the company of a knowledgeable and passionate local guide/driver. You’ll also be lessening your impact by traveling together rather than in a convoy of cars or in a massive heavy coach. Over six million tourists take to the GOR every year and after 100 years of strain the cracks are starting to show.

From climate change to farmers, day trippers to overcrowded car parks, Aboriginal land owners to high rise hoteliers, the issues facing the Great Ocean Road aren’t as straightforward as you might at first think.

People & culture

On the Road

This grand old centurion is suffering. Convoys of cars and tourist buses take to the narrow length of road to the Twelve Apostles every single day. With more than six million visitors per year it’s easy to understand how the impact on the environment and the experience, as a whole, is beginning to take its toll. Crammed car parks and tail backs are commonplace in the summer.

Heavier vehicles, pollution and poor infrastructure (no toilets, for instance) all add to the negative impact on the environment with no maintenance costs or responsibility laid at the door of visitors. Also, despite over $1billion being spent by tourists visiting the Great Ocean Road each year only a small percentage is reaching the pockets of local people living in the smaller townships.

The road was originally constructed as a government-sponsored scheme to provide employment to soldiers returning from WWI. It was also built to allow access to some of Victoria’s most scenic stretches of coastline and isolated communities in places like Anglesea, Aireys Inlet and Lorne. Agricultural areas, such as Warrnambool, Portland and Port Fairy also benefited.
In theory, this should have been music to the ears of local accommodation owners and businesses looking to profit from the continual stream of tourists. Unfortunately, however, many people just gun it down from Melbourne, snap a selfie, and leave. You can tick off the 242km route in a day. No problem.

Day trippers are the blight of the Great Ocean Road and provide few, if any, positives to the prosperity of local economies. Staying in the area for at least one or two nights is certainly a preferable option, although really large tour groups can often wipe out all available hotel rooms, leaving independent travelers with few other options other than day trips.

There are also strict reservations in place to stop tourist accommodation going up in Great Otway National Park. On one hand this is a good thing and welcomed by the locals living in the area. On the other hand, there are simply not enough small, independently-owned places to stay overnight. This has left way too many stakeholders wanting to stick up large mega hotels in towns like Apollo Bay.

Not everyone can access the region on foot for days on end. Older people and travelers with accessibility issues simply aren't able to stay over as all the accommodation is far removed from the natural wilderness and most scenic sections of park.

There is a little light at the end of the tunnel, however. Plans are in the pipeline for a $30 million scheme to stop cars entering the area around the Twelve Apostles. There will be a shuttle bus system instead, like a park and ride. You'll still be able to walk there, you just won't be able to drive.

What you can do
Rather than day tripping, it's far more beneficial for self drive or small guided groups (max eight travelers) to stay in the area for multiple days: on a working farm, for instance, or in a boutique B&B, in a tiny outback town, where you can take dinner at the local pub. This not only gives back to remote rural economies but also allows more interaction with local folk.

You'll also get to see more of the natural highlights that Melbourne yo-yos always miss. Visit the Twelve Apostles, for example, in the early morning or late afternoon and they’re practically empty apart from little penguins flip-flapping to or from the sea back to their beachside burrows. By staying in the area you’ll have the freedom to go for a stroll without worrying about coach timetables.

Your presence will support people living in more remote areas as well as allowing you to explore on foot. It’s just a much better experience for travelers, the environment and for local guides.

Aboriginal culture

When the Great Ocean Road was built by returning WWI veterans there was little left to imply that the land belonged to anyone other than the Australian state government of Victoria.

Southwest Victoria’s coastline and hinterland supplied natural resources for Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years. As such it holds significant spiritual connections related to the land, wildlife and Aboriginal ancestors. The Road was built on land owned by clans pertaining to Gunditjmara, Wathaurong, Eastern Maar and Gadubanud language groups.

Unfortunately, the area’s natural resources were also of significance to European immigrants. Farmers, fishermen and whalers in the early 1830s would come into increasing conflict with Aboriginal people. Later, mining industries such as sand, gravel, coal and gold, and the fishing and timber industries, exploited the area’s natural resources, making physical changes to the landscape.

Vast areas of land were cleared and non-native animals such as horses, sheep, rabbits, cats and foxes greatly altered the natural ecosystem. The availability of traditional food sources and the ability to manage the land in traditional ways was also greatly reduced. Low-intensity burning, for instance, was regularly used to revitalise an area for agriculture, and reduce the risk of bush fires.

Horrific human massacres followed including notable sites at Blanket Bay and the Bay of Martyrs. The Aboriginal population was devastated, with the fraction that remained being forced into Aboriginal reserves and missions such as Framingham Aboriginal Mission near Warrnambool.

Jeremy Redmond is co-owner and small group guide at our Great Ocean Road tour specialists, Australian Natural Treasures: “About 80% of the Aboriginal people in the southwest of Victoria died in the first 40 years of white settlement from disease and conflict. It is always quite devastating for our guests to hear that the conflict was so one sided and that we still have work to do on recognising our Aboriginal people properly. When the conversation takes place at a place such as the ‘Bay of Martyrs’, for instance, known for the settlers driving the Aboriginal men off the cliff at gun point, it comes as a surprise to even the Australian tourists as we were all a little oblivious to what went on.”

What you can do
Make sure you travel with a responsible tour group who don’t gloss over Aboriginal ancestry. Your guides might not be of Aboriginal descent themselves, but they should still be able to address topics sensitively and with honesty. Visit indigenous cultural centers exhibiting ancient archaeological artefacts as well as honest information about how Aboriginal people have been treated.

There’s a traditional Aboriginal talking hut, for example, which is located at the Cape Otway Lighthouse. Here you can meet and chat to indigenous guides who are happy to share their personal and ancestral stories and knowledge of their people as well as teaching kids about bush tucker.

Jeremy Redmond: “A new site that has recently been given World Heritage status is Budj Bim Heritage Landscape near Portland towards the Victoria and South Australian Border. This area is an extinct volcanic site that was used by the Gunditjmara people for aqua culture and is the only place in Australia where there is evidence of permanent residence of Aboriginal people. The site is not open to the public or operators without engaging the local Aboriginal tribe and also lacks the infrastructure to roam through unguided. It is possible to get a local Aboriginal guide to give our groups a tour through the site and explain the unique cultural history of the landscape.”

Wildlife & environment

Changing landscapes

Janine Duffy is a wild koala researcher and co-founder and co-owner of our Great Ocean Road tour experts Echidna Walkabout: “Although some crowds are inevitable around the more popular sites, Victoria's tourism industry tends to give itself a hard time over the Great Ocean Road. It's actually other land users that are causing more destruction to the natural environment. Land used for farming, for instance. Farms have really changed the natural landscape and in many areas already reach right up to the coast.”

This has a direct effect on native wildlife as not only do farms inadvertently feed feral animals, such as cats, foxes and dogs, but they also introduce invading plant species. In turn, this foreign flora attracts other sorts of birds, like starlings, sparrows and common mynas, which can be extremely aggressive towards native birds by moving into their natural habitat and nesting sites.
Kangaroos have also been treated really unfairly in the past by farmers and developed this sort of mythical vermin-like status. They eat around a third of what a similar-sized sheep eats and only compete with farm animals for food during drought seasons. The grass grown on most farmsteads can easily support a large population of kangaroos, no trouble.

Visitors from outside of Australia get a real kick from seeing kangaroos in the wild and the farmers who have branched out into offering accommodation are learning to point them out to guests rather than curse them.

What you can do
Talk to farmers about the region's biodiversity and how you consider endemic plants and animals to be a major factor in your decision to visit Victoria, away from the city suburbs. This might encourage them to plant a few native plant species on their land, you never know. Another way is through sustainable tourism. Some working farms already offer accommodation to top up their income.

Opening up their homes and lands to travelers also encourages farmers to change their attitude to wild animals that have previously faced a bad rap i.e. kangaroos. The more guests express a wish to see kangaroos, alongside native plants and birds, the more farmers will be encouraged to oblige.

Janine Duffy is a wild koala researcher and co-founder and co-owner of our Great Ocean Road tour experts Echidna Walkabout: “We used to send travelers to stay overnight with a couple of delightful old dairy farmers. You know, real salt of the earth types. The wife was always in hair curlers and the husband had hands as big as Christmas hams! Exactly as you'd picture. However, these guys were really open minded and loved receiving foreign guests. They'd be the type of land owners who'd welcome the opportunity to change the natural landscape of the GOR back to something closer to its original state.”

Climate change

Unfortunately, even though some farmers' attitudes to kangaroos are changing, the population, as a whole, is shrinking. Artificial water sources, including dams and water holes, reduced rainfall and unhealthy rivers have affected ‘roos' natural habitat. Climate heating is a major contributor to ever-changing ecosystems and marsupials, in particular, are most under threat. It's thought that a two degree rise in global temperatures will wipe out kangaroo populations from over half of Australia.

Another example of climate change chaos is the plight of short-tailed shearwaters (aka mutton birds) – who are native to Australia. For the previous three decades they’ve appeared around Griffiths Island, near Port Fairy, either side of September 22nd. In 2019 they were late, and it’s thought that higher Arctic Ocean temperatures in Alaska and Siberia may have changed their natural migration pattern. Rather than returning to Victoria to breed, as they normally do, they may have instead bypassed Australia and headed directly to Antarctica.

This could affect literally millions of birds. The Australian wildlife community is in shock as this could be one wildlife experience that we sadly have to wipe off the list. How many times can these sorts of natural experiences keep disappearing from our lives? The fact that no one knows what’s happened to the short-tailed shearwaters shows the lack of research effort and funding for ocean birds.

What you can do
Make your long haul flight to Australia count. Don’t just whizz in for a week and tick off the sights. Be patient and go slow. Join a small group in a suitably-sized small vehicle. Avoid day trips in huge heavy coaches. Eat out locally and avoid international hotel chains in favour of smaller working farms. Don’t take domestic flights from Sydney to Melbourne – just stick to one area and explore on foot.

We’re all responsible for global heating whether we like it or not. Traveling needs to be seen as a privilege, not a right. If you can, chat to your tour provider before you sign up and ask them what they recommend doing before, after and during a trip Down Under.

Read our manifesto for the future of tourism before booking your next vacation.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Diliff] [On the Road: Jorge Láscar] [Changing landscapes: Carles Rabada]