Saving the Blue Mountains, $1950 at a time

Posted on October 11th, 2009 by

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Saving the Blue Mountains, $1950 at a time

I was starting to wonder whether the minister had just been to the dentist.  As the Hon. Sandra Nori spoke of the day as “the highlight of my life as tourism minister”, there seemed to be no other plausible explanation.

The day was the 22nd of June 2005, the place was the top floor of the Shangri-La hotel in Sydney, and the highlight of Minister Nori’s life was the announcement that Emirates Airlines would build an ‘eco-lodge’ in the middle of national parks in the Blue Mountains.

Emirates had summonsed Sydney’s media to hear about plans to, in the words of the company chairman, HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum,

“take this beautiful, but sadly distressed rural farming site and turn it into a sanctuary to further showcase Australia to the world.”

Since then, the costs have blown out from $50 million to $125 million, there has been a delay of two years, local environment groups have complained, green politicians have made some feeble noises, the state government gave Emirates an award for the project even though the development hadn’t been approved, and the certification process has been shoved along under the rather opaque Part 3A of the NSW Environmental Planning and Assessment Act.

Along the way a chopper pad has been built in the middle of a national park area, so that guests can get straight down to the work of saving the planet, one Sodashi Thermal Infusing Facial at a time.

Would you trust this man with your UNESCO-listed national parks? Emirates' Joost Heymeijer receives a Certificate of Recognition from the Hon Sandra Nori. Nevermind that the resort hadn't yet been approved, let alone bought or built.

Would you trust this man with your UNESCO-listed national parks? Emirates' Joost Heymeijer receives a Certificate of Recognition from the Hon Sandra Nori. Nevermind that the resort hadn't yet been approved, let alone bought or built.

But this is not a post about the rather tired facts of poor governmental transparency, fraudulent environmental credentials, or the cruel ironies of an airline building an ‘eco-resort’ for predominantly overseas tourists who will fly here in business class, private jets and helicopters.

The biggest problem is the press hoopla which the resort has attracted and the amount of kudos which is given for the environmental credentials.

Let’s not forget that the resort is in a highly sensitive area of national park – regenerating the area and preventing sewerage flow into local streams should be a basic entry requirement, not a cause for praise.

Let’s also note that prices per night start at $1950, and go up to $5500.  If this is really the best Australia has to offer in ‘eco-tourism’ it leaves little hope for mere mortals – particularly ones who vote Labor.

At the press conference in 2005 I asked Sandra Nori whether this model was really the ‘future of environmental tourism’ if no-one on anything below an executive level salary could stay there?  Surely for the resort to be a real career highlight and environmental boon, it would need to be more affordable and accessible and not require more staff than guests to run it?

The answer began with “I don’t understand your question” and continued with a recap of the environmental PR.

The Emirates resort’s green credentials could be a lot worse.  But the marketing of the resort and the way the press have bought it gives a clear message – that sustainable holidays cost a month’s average wage per night.  In the meantime, it seems news of genuinely interesting and affordable environmentally sound building practices will continue to be presented as little more than an oddity.