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Not afraid of a little hot water.

Farming & gardening is part of Gippsland's heritage, but how do we incorporate these into the modern tourism industry?

Jul 3, 2019

Words: Matt Sykes
Images: Supplied

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How do we millennials, an emerging generation of globally connected, tech-savvy Gippsland leaders, build on the foundations provided by our Elders?

We do so with an exploration of our vision, purpose and values.

It begins with acknowledging our Elders, both past and present, and the wisdom embodied in their life’s work. It comes from our own relationship to the land, waters, skies, plants and animals of our diverse region. From this foundation, we can then open ourselves to a world of possibilities. Let’s look at each other as emerging leaders, ready to engage in the practice of collaborative dreaming.

When thinking about leadership in a global context, people like Yvon Chouinard come to mind. Yvon founded Patagonia outdoor clothing company, arguably the most environmentally responsible business in the world. There is the Chinese landscape architect Kongjian Yu, whose firm Turenscape is rehabilitating whole river ecosystems using traditional land management principles. Or Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, the designer of Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium for 2020, who has become globally renowned for reinterpreting traditional construction materials and techniques for our modern times. Another personal hero would be Danish chef Rene Redzepi, a passionate advocate for the New Nordic Cuisine movement and co-owner of the world-renowned Noma restaurant, where seasonal, wild foods are gathered then reimagined into transformational eating experiences.

We must include local inspiration Bruce Pascoe and his book Dark Emu, which challenges Australians to understand our country as an ancient cultural landscape with farming by fire rather than fence at its heart.

To review the concept of leadership in Gippsland, I need to return to a previous and pivotal chapter in my life. In 2011–2, I was studying entrepreneurship at Cambridge University. As an ‘eco-entrepreneur’, I started producing a series of short films under a project called ‘LandTalk’.

My subjects (and heroes) were people like Pat Dunne, a farmer in Ripplebrook, West Gippsland, who has embarked on broad-scale revegetation of waterways and remnant bushland to create a series of wildlife corridors across his 300-acre property. Joe Kirby of Shady Creek adopted similar principles in the practice of bush-brokering, which sees rare ecological vegetation communities protected through an economics-driven credit system. Beekeeper Dean Kriesl, amateur astronomer Rod Stubbings and biodynamic farmer Marc Cunningham were other noteworthy Gippsland leaders profiled in the series of six short videos (if you’re interested, have a quick search for ‘LandTalk Gippsland’ online). The sixth subject of the series was Charles Davidson, the visionary co-founder of Peninsula Hot Springs, which is quickly becoming an international benchmark for nature-based wellness tourism and is also my current employer. The films were screened at Federation Square as part of the 2013 Sustainable Living Week celebrations.

Before continuing, I must recognise the inspiring Gippsland women that I look up to Wendy Wallace of Elderslie organic farm, Linda Hoare of the Baw Baw Food Hub and Vicki Jones of Mountain View organic dairy. We must also mention Erika McInerney and Sallie Jones, the ladies behind the Warragul Farmers Market, and Lesley Odrowaz of Lean and Green.

Are you sensing a pattern? These real-life superheroes and heroines are committed to creating improved wellbeing through a connection to nature and community. I’d go further and say that they are part of a global movement that is focussed on the regeneration of our Earth. This mirrors my own life passions and reflects the interests of many fellow millennials.

One February morning I was listening to Hack on Triple J when the hosts started talking about millennials (those born between 1981–96), specifically our career preferences. They cited the 2016 Cone Communications Millennial Employee Engagement Study (from the US), which provided the following key findings:

64% of us consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work;

83% would be more loyal to a company that helps us contribute to social and environmental issues;

88% say our job is more fulfilling when we are provided opportunities to make a positive impact on social and environmental issues.

In short, for the majority of us, our vision, purpose and values are aligned to regenerating the land and supporting a diverse, culturally-rich global community.

Consider that millennials are now, “the largest generation in the workforce and, by 2025, we will make up three-quarters of employees in Australia”. So, when the Victorian Tourism Industry Council declares a target of 320,000 tourism jobs by 2025 (we’re currently sitting at 214,000 jobs, representing 7% of the state’s total workforce), you have to ask a question: what kind of jobs are we are talking about? Experience managers? Nature guides? Wellness instructors?

From where I sit, if any modern business or organisation wants to get millennials on board and retain our skills, you’re going to have to have some serious environmental and social credentials. Think ‘B Corp’ status, think ‘1% for the Planet’ accreditation and, if I were a business owner or CEO, I’d definitely be reading books like The Responsible Company by Patagonia before mapping out your own environmental management strategy.

How do the employment desires of millennials relate to developing a better Gippsland? Please see Exhibit A — a map of existing and emerging hot springs projects across Victoria. Notice how four of the five planned developments are situated in our region: Metung Hot Springs and Nunduk Spa Retreat on the Gippsland Lakes, the Gippsland Regional Aquatic Centre, Traralgon, and Saltwater Springs, Phillip Island.

Gippslandia #11 - Feature. - Not afraid of a little hot water.

Exhibit A — Victorian hot springs industry development plan. (Source: Peninsula Hot Springs)

Gippslandia #11 - Feature. - Not afraid of a little hot water.

Exhibit B1 — Before: Peninsula Hot Springs in 1997.

Gippslandia #11 - Feature. - Not afraid of a little hot water.

Exhibit B2 — After: Peninsula Hot Springs in 2018.

Exhibit B is a photo of Peninsula Hot Springs on the Mornington Peninsula, a tourism project developed with genuine triple bottom line values. The ‘after’ image shows over 100 people participating in a hot springs yoga session during World Wellness Weekend in September, 2018. Note how the neighbouring farmland still mirrors the ‘before’ image. Remarkably, over 450,000 people visit these healing waters each year.

Now, for exhibits C through to F:

C — Metung Hot Springs looks set to employ the same regenerative land management principles as Peninsula Hot Springs;

Gippslandia #11 - Feature. - Not afraid of a little hot water.

D — Nunduk Spa Retreat is designed to achieve a 6-star GBCA Green Star rating;

Gippslandia #11 - Feature. - Not afraid of a little hot water.

E — Gippsland Regional Aquatic Centre will rely on geothermal heat transfer to warm its pool water;

Gippslandia #11 - Feature. - Not afraid of a little hot water.

F — Saltwater Springs, similar to the others, will have very strong collaborative connections with the local First Nations community.

Right now you’re looking for an email address to send your CV to, right?!

Full disclosure, as mentioned above, I’m presently employed by Peninsula Hot Springs as the Experience Manager. Previously, I was the Experience Manager for the Tasmanian Walking Company’s Cradle Mountain Huts Walk — one of Australia’s ecotourism icons.

Currently, I’m also working on a global research project focussing on nature-based tourism, specifically hot springs and wellness. This is supported by the Victorian Tourism Industry Council, who kindly awarded me the Lynette Bergin Fellowship in 2018.

In May and June this year, I’m travelling to seven countries to profile industry leaders and benchmark projects with the express purpose of providing recommendations for the strategic development of our tourism industry.

In fact, as you’re reading this, I’m likely bathing at Blue Lagoon in Iceland or stepping out of Finland’s oldest sauna (completely naked, of course!), ready to plunge into a vast, icy lake. You may find me leading a forest-bathing walk with Norway’s Food Studio (See Gippslandia #5 for a previous collaboration), or diving off a platform at Kastrup Sea Bath in Denmark. I also plan to be walking around the manufactured biomes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK, a project that now has links to a major ecotourism project at Alcoa’s former coal mine in Anglesea. By mid-June, I’m probably on my return journey, popping in for a quick bathe at the Bishuiwan Hot Spring Resort, China. As you can see, I take my experiential research very seriously.

All jests aside, there is tremendous potential for Gippsland to use hot springs tourism as a spearhead for millennial jobs, and as part of a strategic rebranding of our region. We need new collaborative dreams: renewable energy projects, organic agriculture and sustainable businesses. Projects that reimagine our traditional resources for the world we’ll soon be living in. Promisingly, there are political, community and business leaders across our region who are actively welcoming innovative developments, such as the new hot springs ventures.

As Gippslandians, our heritage is rooted in farming and gardening, but if we’re to remain relevant in the future, we need to find new industries for these traditional skills.

The global wellness tourism industry is valued at $US639 billion and thermal/mineral springs represent a $US56 billion segment with 6.5% growth forecast between 2017 and 2022. Somewhat ironically, the same geological structure that provided Gippsland with brown coal to fuel its previous heyday provides the region with an opportunity to more easily create thermal hot springs. Given the many potential benefits these tourist drawcards can bring us, I suspect hot springs can be a significant part of a healthier future Gippsland. Are you ready to dive in?

You’re welcome to follow Matt on his travels through the Nordic region, the UK and China on Instagram: @mattsykes_

Gippslandia #11 - Feature. - Not afraid of a little hot water.

Emerging Leaders To Watch

Through Matt’s research travels profiling the two existing and five emerging hot springs projects in Victoria, he’s met with many inspirational people. Here’s a section of Gippslandians that stood out to him:

Gippslandia #11 - Feature. - Not afraid of a little hot water.

Natalie O’Connell
(Mayor of East Gippsland Shire Council)
Natalie’s looking to unlock the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit within her community by encouraging self-starters.

She is supportive of the Metung Hot Springs project, recognising the potential positive impact, especially for youth career pathways.

“A proposal of this type would be an ideal fit for Metung Village, and boost business confidence in investment for the wider East Gippsland region. The opportunity for collaboration between the Metung Hot Springs and businesses all over East Gippsland is significant.”

Gippslandia #11 - Feature. - Not afraid of a little hot water.

Harry Troedel
(Director at Seacombe West)
Harry’s family has been farming in the region for over 35 years and now he’s planning to transform salt affected grazing land into the 6-star Green Star designed Nunduk Spa Retreat by way of using regenerative land principles.

“Tourism isn’t going to stop so we have to go beyond sustainability, work towards a positive impact. We can show people techniques in regenerative development and building design, things that people can take back home with them.”

Gippslandia #11 - Feature. - Not afraid of a little hot water.

Luke McGrath
(Senior Project Manager behind Gippsland Regional Aquatic Centre)
Luke’s family is originally from Droitwich Spa in England, so geothermal energy runs in his blood. He has researched examples of best practices for aquatic centres across Australia and is working through the logistical and engineering challenges associated with sourcing geothermal water.

Latrobe City Council’s geothermal project will deliver long-term economic, environmental and wellbeing benefits to the Latrobe Valley community.”

Gippslandia #11 - Feature. - Not afraid of a little hot water.

Catherine Basterfield
(CEO of Phillip Island Nature Parks)
Catherine has an inspiring vision for the future of Phillip Island. She is closely involved with the redevelopment of the Penguin Parade Visitor Centre and sees the environmentally restorative Saltwater Hot Springs as a key component of a more immersive experience on the Island.

“I see it as a much wilder place, much more vegetated and appreciated as a global best-practice ecotourism destination, known for its environmental values.”

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