This story is part of our New Standard series, examining where travel is headed. Read more about how we define the New Standard here.
From the news coverage of Australia’s apocalyptic bushfires early this year, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking the entire place had burned to the ground. I arrived in New South Wales, the country’s most blaze-ravaged state, in mid-March, expecting devastation. But barely a month after the last flames had been put out, there were already signs of renewal. Amanda Fry, founder of Wild Food Adventures, a travel outfitter that designs culinary-focused nature experiences, showed me around Kangaroo Valley, a wildlife haven 90 minutes south of Sydney, where rock wallabies, wombats, and echidna had started to return. In nearby Morton National Park, vibrant green shoots sprouted from trees charred to the color of obsidian, and emerald cycads, palmlike plants dating to Jurassic times, bloomed from singed trunks.
In March, Fry developed a tour called Travel in Purpose after dozens of travelers asked how they could assist in the relief effort. The program involves hikes and picnics in affected areas to educate people about the resilience of the bush. Though the immense scale of the recent fires was the result of drought, deforestation, climate change, and high winds, fire always has been and always will be part of the bush, Fry told me: “The Aboriginal culture has used fire for land management for centuries. It’s essential to the propagation of many species, like eucalyptus. That’s why we’re already seeing native plants regenerating.” The new offering has proven as popular as her more luxe experiences, like a Champagne-and-canapés canoe trip.
Four hours north of the park at Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley, a 7,000-acre eco-retreat, I joined guests engaged in restoration work. The buildings were unscathed, and recent rains had turned the burnt landscape lush and green. As I knelt to plant a sapling, conservation manager Simone Brooks pointed out a tufted honeyeater, noting how the property has become an unexpected refuge for previously uncommon bird species. “It’s a fascinating time to experience the bush and get to see Mother Nature at work,” she told me.
I left Australia feeling hopeful. Tourism was rebounding; the land was coming back to life. But then the pandemic hit and the country closed its borders indefinitely. The dramatic reduction of visitors will help the wildlife to recover without interruption, though experts point out that responsible tourism is critical in reversing biodiversity loss. “With greater visitation comes the ability to provide more research on our wildlife species,” explained John Daw, executive officer of the outdoor-focused Australian Wildlife Journeys, which in July launched a Bushfire Recovery Wildlife Journey across multiple affected states.
In the state of South Australia, nearly half of Kangaroo Island was affected by the fires; a main attraction, Southern Ocean Lodge, a 21-room luxury retreat that accounted for 3 percent of the island’s 200,000 annual visitors, was a total loss. Owner James Baillie, founder of high-end hotel company Baillie Lodges, estimates it will take three years to rebuild. “Our community partners were the fabric of the hotel,” he said, “and the fires made us realize we have a responsibility to promote travel to the destination.” Southern Ocean Lodge has been using its social media platforms to send such messages as “So much of Kangaroo Island looks exactly as you’d expect: pristine, pure, and perfect. To rebuild, we need tourism, and for that we need you.”
Craig Wickham, managing director of the tour operator Exceptional Kangaroo Island, estimates he lost $400,000 worth of business in January alone once the fires became global headline news. The coronavirus travel restrictions that followed made him rethink his approach to tourism. “The need to find alternative experiences during the bushfires was the genesis of many new tours, but after 30 years, COVID forced us to look at our legacy of products,” he said. “We realized we need to do a better job appealing to Australian travelers who would usually be headed offshore for wildlife adventures in the Galápagos, Patagonia, or East Africa.” To that end, the company has developed immersive five- and seven-day programs that offer behind-the-scenes research insights, walks, guest speakers, and private property access. “If we want to get visitors from abroad to care, we should be able to get visitors from Australia to care,” he said. “That is the definition of sustainable travel.”
This article appeared in the October 2020 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.