Architectural Tactics for Dispersing Tourism: Lessons from Australia’s Great Ocean Road

In the idyllic landscapes along Australia’s famed Great Ocean Road, the economic and social impact of architectural interventions has become a focal point, addressing the dearth of accommodations in the inland regions. The challenge of attracting tourists to these areas while strengthening the local communities unveils compelling success stories in three distinct domains: the towns, the hinterlands, and a thematic trail. Amidst this exploration lies a crucial lesson: the renovation of small town centers and innovative repurposing of buildings can revitalize these regions, preserving their heritage and bolstering local economies. Clara Copiglia tells us more.

[Above: The 12 Apostles sea stack formations, a highlight on the Great Ocean Road, which is visible at top of frame. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot]

Inspiration along the Great Ocean Road

Back in September 2018, I embarked on a weekend trip to the renowned Great Ocean Road, a scenic drive along the south coast of Victoria, Australia. Due to our modest budget, my partner and I opted for an overnight stay away from the seashore. As night descended, we journeyed an hour north from the coastline and found the inviting glow of the Mount Noorat Hotel, the sole source of warmth and light in the tranquil rural darkness. We were the only tourists staying in the hotel that night, and during our short visit, we learned from the hotel’s owner that it was the only place left in the area for local inhabitants to meet and for tourists to sleep.

From that day on, I was determined to understand the economic and social impact of places like this hotel. Were there others?

A map of the research area. The red dots represent points of interest for visitors such as hotels, restaurants, lookouts, and recreational areas. [Map courtesy of Clara Copiglia]

The Great Ocean Road is the most visited destination in Victoria. While it attracts around 6 million visitors per year, half of them being day-trippers, the inland region lacks much accommodation for visitors and has been losing population. How could architectural actions increase tourism appeal and strengthen the local community?

At the beginning of 2023, two years after completing my architectural degree, I returned to this area to study renovated buildings located inland that impact visitor numbers. You can download the complete report as a pdf.

Here are examples from the research, focusing on success stories and organized in three parts: The towns, the hinterland, and a thematic trail.

The Inland Towns

As most visitors travel by car or tourist coach, they will likely pass through many regional towns and see their streetscapes, usually composed of storefronts and hotels. Originally, storefronts were food shops, blacksmith shops, bakeries, etc., while hotels provided accommodations for visitors and a pub. Today, many storefronts are abandoned or have been converted into private houses, and many hotels are closed.

In Noorat, I found that the previous owner of the Mount Noorat Hotel had decided to sell during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Blain Family, a couple and their parents, bought the place to save it from closing down or being converted to housing. They took over the hotel while running a dairy business at the same time. The hotel is a place of meeting for the community, where locals and tourists encounter and sometimes gather, during bushfires, a place of refuge.

The historic Mount Noorat Hotel, built in 1909. [Photo courtesy of Clara Copiglia]

The Mount Noorat Hotel had been renovated first by the previous owner, who I met back in 2018. He took off the fake ceiling and repainted the interior, giving it a warm atmosphere. On the second floor, the hotel has a few well-renovated rooms that bring travelers to Noorat who discover the area or visit relatives. Aided by some local-government funding from Corangamite Shire, the Blain family has taken over the renovation and plans an outdoor seating area.

Lesson learned: In small regional communities, there is often a space that can both serve as a gathering place for locals and host visitors. It is essential to identify these types of buildings and care for them. In the case of Noorat, the hotel is kept open thanks to devoted locals and government help.

In other towns in the area, in addition to hotels, these buildings might include converted churches, storefronts, halls, etc. There are many simple ways to upgrade those spaces like adding openings, creating an outdoor covered space, which would transform it into a welcoming place for both community and visitors. Storefront establishments, for instance, can gain appeal by sprucing up the façade and adding skylights or a back terrace.

The Hinterlands

In between the towns inland from the Great Ocean Road, the landscape varies from tropical forest to plains punctuated by extinct volcanoes, lakes, and farms. But relatively few visitors come compared to the seashore.

I found one demonstration project that does bring tourism inland. Innovative accommodations such as tiny houses are a great way to promote these regional areas, as they bring visitors to the doorsteps of the locals wanting their business. Ample, an Australian company specializing in transportable living spaces, was approached by Visit Victoria – the state’s primary tourism and event company – to propose a touristic off-grid tiny house called ‘Stella the Stargazer’.

Stella was moved every eight weeks to different locations in Victoria, including the Great Ocean Road region. The tiny house is placed on farm properties to highlight the natural landscape, and a chef collaborates with locals to provide visitors with food products from the area. The farmers get paid rent and don’t have to manage the bookings.

The remarkable tiny house, ‘Stella the Stargazer’, with its clever design and unique amenities. [Photos courtesy of Brook James and Greta Punch]

Stella was mostly built with reclaimed materials; its truss and cladding come from an old local farm shed that Ample dismantled. Stella is entirely off-grid with solar panels; it can harvest rainwater, and the grey water goes into into holding tanks. Nothing is left on-site.

Lessons learned: Having the tiny house as an accommodation for tourists is a great opportunity for a second revenue stream for locals by bringing visitors to areas outside towns. It offers visitors a chance to stay in a natural landscape while connecting with local residents with products to share.

Thematic Trail

To connect town centers on the coast with businesses in the hinterlands, the ‘Gourmet Trail’ grew from adaptive re-use of an old building.

Two local dairy farmers, Caroline and Tim Marwood, converted an abandonned railway shed in the town of Timboon into a distillery. They created an extension, added large windows and an outdoor seating space.

This new attraction brought many new visitors, and Caroline and Tim opened an Ice Creamery and accommodations in Timboon. They received $200,000 from the Victorian Government to fund the renovation of the Distillery. The Distillery and Ice Creamery generated a visitor hub within the community, encouraging visitors to explore the streets of Timboon. The two establishments have around 70,000 visitors per year and employ between 25 and 30 local people each.

Family-owned Timboon Distillery specializes in single malt whisky. [Photo courtesy of Clara Copiglia]

After the renovation of the railway shed, local producers started formalizing an itinerary between the Distillery and other production places, such as a cheesery and a winery. The idea was to promote each other’s products, make visitors stay longer, and disseminate visitation in the area. The main support for extending visitor reach is a map distributed in visitor centers and all gourmet trail businesses.

Today, the trail is comprised of nine members, located within a radius of 30 km, all producers from the Corangamite Shire. They created a membership system with a monetary contribution to fund the branding, and they meet regularly to enhance the trail and evaluate new memberships.

The businesses in rural areas on the Gourmet Trail repurpose commonly found types of buildings on farms, such as metal sheds, converting them for tourism activity. For example, the latest member of the Gourmet Trail is Keayang Maar Vineyard, located between Cobden and Teerang. The building has one part for storage and another for wine tasting. You can see this dual use in the shape of the building, which shows a large and high space on one side, and the form of the roof adapt its shape to create  a covered outdoor area for visitors.

Lesson learned: The Gourmet trail works well because creative renovation of old buildings combined with local products helps entice tourists to detour inland from the popular Great Ocean Road. Some of these businesses also provide new meeting spaces for locals.

A diagram mapping the buildings in the Hinterlands area and possible renovations. [Photo courtesy of Clara Copiglia]

Conclusion

My research area covered two shires. I found that renovating buildings in small town centers, such as hotels, storefronts, and standalone buildings, is crucial for attracting tourism and combating depopulation. This investment can help create a more vibrant atmosphere, preserve historic landmarks, and boost the local economy.

In the rural hinterlands farmers and entrepreneurs can introduce new buildings, such as tiny houses for tourists, or work with the existing metal shed landscape by introducing new purposes for this common building.

While working on this project, I stayed at the Mount Noorat Hotel – one of the first guests to book a room for a longer stay. While talking with some of the locals in the Hotel’s pub one evening, I heard the rumor that the abandoned butter factory near the center had found a new owner. I wonder what the plan is for this building and if it will bring more visitors to Noorat? Will it serve the community? An opportunity awaits.

People Power: Rebuilding a Region with ECO at Heart in Australia

Another winner from the Top 100 – Every year, Green Destinations organizes the Top 100 Destination Sustainability Stories competition, which invites submissions from around the world – a vetted collection of stories spotlighting local and regional destinations that are making progress toward sustainable management of tourism and its impacts. From the winners announced this year, we’ve selected two more stories, this time from Japan and Australia, that showcase different reasons for engaging the local community. Synopses by Samantha Bray. Top 100 submission by Whitney Edwards, Marketing Officer, Marketing & Tourism, Central Coast Council.

Surfers are drawn to the beaches of the Central Coast. [Photo courtesy of Green Destinations]

The need for a sustainable tourism strategy

Just 90 miles north of Sydney, the Central Coast region of New South Wales, Australia, offers an eco-tourism wonderland of national parks, state forests, bushland, nature reserves, beaches, inland waterways, and mountains. The landscape wonders are enhanced by thriving communities and Aboriginal cultural sites numbering in the thousands, some between 7,000 and 20,000 years old. However, in 2020 it was recognized that something important was missing – a sustainable tourism strategy to effectively promote and protect the region’s greatest assets.

The Central Coast Council began pursuing creation of this strategy while battling financial and administrative challenges, COVID-19, and various natural disasters. It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times to take on a tourism management overhaul. The Council’s acceptance into Ecotourism Australia’s Destination Certification Program, funded by WWF-Australia, provided the guidance, resources, and accountability for the Central Coast on their journey to be one of New South Wales’ leading sustainable tourism destinations, with tangible results.

Steps
In part, steps taken included:

  • In 2020, the Central Coast Council set a goal of becoming a certified ECO Destination, internationally recognized through the GSTC-accredited Green Destination Standard, by World Environment Day 2022.
  • Working backwards from World Environment Day with expert support from the Australian ECO Destination network, program milestones were set for Engagement, Application, Audit, Certification, and Marketing.
  • The Council hosted a streaming of the Global Eco Asia-Pacific Tourism Conference for tourism operators, offering connections and insights from passionate sustainability professionals.
  • A pilot industry event with inspiring guest speakers brought together 60 eco-conscious tourism operators, resulting in an ECO Operator Incentive of $500 offered by WWF-Australia for individual operators to pursue ECO certification. A cohort of 15 businesses was formed.
  • Stakeholders were engaged for six months of discussions, coaching, consultations, and workshops. Complex ECO criteria were broken down for each type of stakeholder. Topics focused on livability, visitor dispersal, and industry product development, as well as how to become more sustainably oriented tourism marketers, council officers, land managers, and business owners. Strategies explored ranged from cycling more, littering less, and plastic-free events, to accessible beaches, water quality mapping, and responsible dog ownership.
  • The Council compiled information to respond to the 87 ECO criteria of the certification program, submitting the Central Coast’s application in April 2022.
  • The region hosted an independent destination auditor, who conducted 20 interviews with stakeholders and 10 site visits.

Results
In June 2022, the Central Coast became an Australia ECO Destination, in time for World Environment Day. Cross-sectoral partnerships enabled the consolidation of data into one platform, engaging teams on waste, waterways, estuary, energy management, natural assets & biodiversity, economic development, heritage, planning, events and placemaking, community programs, and visitor services. The resulting Central Coast Destination Management Plan (2022-2025) has outlined strategies and tactics for collaboration, education, and empowerment to meet shared goals.

Visitors kayaking in Glenworth Valley. [Photo courtesy of Green Destinations]

In addition, ecotourism ideals have been integrated into all tourism and marketing roles and content. Data between 2020 and 2022 shows that while visitation numbers were down due to COVID, guests were staying over 10% longer and spending nearly 30% more. Social media, media, and website metrics all point to increased brand awareness. The range of initiatives in progress have been woven into the destination brand, showing that each small project adds up in a big way on the journey towards more sustainable destination management.