24 Nov The Value of architecture as an investment in eco tourism
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the architecture and its relevance with eco-tourism; tourism is not my usual professional territory, but it is very much part of my background.
I will be focusing on small-scale projects for a landscape that is often described as ‘empty, with nothing there’, or the seemingly untouchable because of national park status.
Over the last 50 years, the Dolomites, a newly listed UNESCO World heritage Site, has evolved to suit the ever-changing face of tourism; it has transitioned from accommodating high yield visitors of the 60s to serving mass tourism from the 70s onwards; it is currently evaluating a shift to more sustainable practices and to new horizons.
The experience there shows reliance upon the extraordinary beauty of the landscape as its main asset. Much has been invested in architecture both contemporary and restored to address this issue of reliance. This long-term focus is on additional visitors’ experiences, with more engagement with the landscape and ethnic culture. The more conservative communities, by communities I mean authorities and operators, challenged by the young UNESCO status and current economic downturn, are trying to catch-up and there is evidence of emerging innovation; alternative offerings are part of an attempt to address the declining numbers of visitors and/or the declining level of servicing. Visitors are still turning up but for shorter periods and for discounted packages. The more innovative communities have a steady, healthy and increasing market. (+ 8% last European summer).
By comparison I believe that in Western Australia not enough has been invested in the renewal of offerings, especially since we are not a cheap destination; I believe the tourist industry here relies too heavily on ‘our way of life and our natural assets ’ as a slogan.
Where I come from, the landscape is extraordinary, like here and like here operators have not always been particularly progressive. The Dolomites has almost 100 years of hospitality history. But still, some of the structures are risking bankruptcy and lowering prices has not helped attendance. 30% of traditional hotels are now on the market. However ‘destination Dolomites’, having made it to UNESCO listing and wanting to maintain that listing, has promoters recognising the need to be innovative and very dynamic. The most progressive operators are addressing these challenges with investment in innovative architecture as a priority.
For us the indigenous culture may continue to be an exceptionally valuable asset if offered appropriately. The arts are prominent and, as an example, in my town it has recently come in the form of an invitation: they have invited the New York International Music Academy to holiday in town gratis and, in exchange, the town is getting world-class classical concerts for the tourist, free of charge. The benefit of this initiative has extended to turning this into a seasonal event and to guaranteeing funding for the building of a school of music. In addition a new market has opened up for an increasing number of New Yorkers heading to the Dolomites.
As a side issue I just wish to name the idea of architecture as investment at a much bigger scale. Here is Hobart and Mona. They’re the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. These two now world famous destinations have in common the following:
- They are both museums of Contemporary art though not exclusively.
- They have been designed by famous architect though one much more famous than the other.
- That they are situated in a relatively small city.
- That they are privately funded or funded by a Trust.
- But more importantly they have changed the economy of those cities just by their existence and that they have generated new unexpected initiatives.
These two examples and large luxury resorts are outside the focus of my talk but they respond to the same emphasis on the value of innovative architecture in tourism.
Just a month ago in Italy some local/regional governments have approved legislation to regulate construction of tree houses as an example of ‘the new’. This form of accommodation (not so new in Northern Europe, nor in Australia) is strictly in tune with all the sustainable principle of Eco tourism but it primarily responds to an ever-growing demand for ‘simple and sophisticated tourism’, responding to the desire for closer contact with nature. This alternative to camping and glamping is well provided in all the States but rare in WA except for the North West and the South West, still very few though. The opportunity of aiming at accessing locations off the beaten tracks is wide open here in regions such the great Southern and the Mid West. In Europe some luxury hotels have added this type of adventure/accommodation as an additional experience like ‘a night in the wild, to add to a normal package.
Alberghi Diffusi – Widespread Hotel
Italian concept of the early 1980s as means of reviving small, historic Italian villages and town centres off the usual tourist track conceived as a hotel that is not in a single block but converted out of various buildings in a small community. (Wikipedia)
Small-scale architecture plays an important role here it is not necessarily tree houses but it is a similar architectural proposal that we would like to endorse, no matter how small. We should look for a new architectural icon that suits both our climatic zones and out remoteness. Indeed there are good examples already, around the Country but not enough in WA.
The Western Australian version of tree houses may be part of an excursion package ex Perth, as an example, that offers a series of ‘in the wild location, in the apparent emptiness’; this may be where 4 and 5 star hotels can expand their packages and consider new types of architectural investments in addition to those in the city and invest in satellite properties to add to their accommodation packages. Developing architectural extraordinary destinations over and above the norm may be part of the new horizon. All this is already available in Eastern Australia, Tasmania, Kangaroo Island; I am proposing that the missing ingredient in this state involve more experimental eco-architecture that would list as ‘the exquisite and the most desirable’, to be located off the beaten track, on the way to already known holiday destinations.
‘What is on offer to visitors bound for Perth and what will encourage them to stay longer and to return? I leave that question hanging because I will only answer in part while I focus on architecture: for that the answer obviously lays with new collaborations between authorities and operators. Changing the mindset of investors must begin with a changed vision that goes beyond the current prescribed path. For this I think regulatory bodies should find a way of directly supporting commercial enterprise. The practice of no involvement outside the Town Planning Scheme often stands in the way of real change, hence the developments of strategic documents like those mentioned throughout the conference. I think the openness to changing the economic models in tourism is still much too slow and it does not put enough emphasis on innovative accommodation and on openness to new forms of structural engagement with the landscape.
Much closer to home and our reality we can boast about the Tree Top Walk, or Ningaloo Eco Accommodation or Karijini National Park, El Questro/ Emma Gorge, Cruise to the Buccaneer archipelago, Margaret River of course, just to name a variety of the most famous e perhaps the least affordable and most desirable. What these locations have in common is their vast distance from Perth and from each other. I believe that the investment opportunities for architecture lay on the way to these destinations, the Mid West, the Gascoyne, the Wheat belt and the Great Southern. We have the possibility of developing a number of exiting destinations between Perth and Exmouth, Perth and Broome, Perth and Kalgoorlie, Perth and Esperance, Perth and Meekatharra and beyond if we considered architecture as the ‘in between destination’ and by architecture I mean sustainable architecture in all its eco applications.
The first document recognises the potential for development and the second addresses the requirements for the UNESCO site by naming architecture in its plan of action, for serious considerations. I refer to these documents where architecture mentioned and that is indeed new and exiting, though I think architecture, as a requirement, is yet to find proper strength and determination as a principle guideline.
I am saying that, not because I am an architect and I promote my profession but I am also a passionate road traveller and I am confident that I represent the very tourist type that these documents seem to be targeting.
For the destination ‘in between’ imagine that every 200km on an imaginary road trip, the road trip to get to the big destinations, we found truly remarkable landscapes of indigenous significance and we proposed accommodation of the type that people would travel from all over Asia. This type of investment could never be modelled on the generic as a type, not necessarily on the exclusive either, but it would consider the extraordinary and the exquisite. Transportable pods might fit that idea; learning about truly sustainable practices may be on offer as a link to the unspoilt. What if every town between Perth and Exmouth offered world-class accommodation that attracted interstate travellers on the way to overseas destination?
A stopover on the way to Asia/Europe? By that I don’t mean the Qualia or the Atacama desert resort of the world but a much more sophisticated but humble idea.
I don’t think we can propose beautiful beaches alone or beautiful forest forever. They have them all over Asia, America and Europe crowded as they may be. We know what is unique here. Currently what is not unique (apart for small instances) is accommodation as a destination. Not even Rottnest, our only Island, beautiful as it is, is a remarkable, unique and innovative architectural destination yet.