A company part-owned by the chair of Queensland Tourism has been shortlisted for a lucrative deal to build eco-accommodation in Queensland national parks.
Brett Godfrey, the multi-millionaire founder of Virgin Australia, was appointed to head up Tourism Queensland in 2017. In that role, he has overseen the move of commercial accommodation operators into the state’s national parks, a sector traditionally limited to Parks and Wildlife Service-run huts and lodges.
Now his Australian Walking Company has been named among applicants shortlisted by the state government’s department of tourism to build accommodation on 60-year leases in three parks, including on Hinchinbrook Island in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Tourism Queensland (TEQ) is separate to the state tourism department which is running the expressions of interest process, but the two “work collaboratively … to identify opportunities to increase tourism,” Mr Godfrey acknowledged in a submission to the integrity commissioner.
He has followed all recommended steps to disclose and manage the perceived conflict of interest between his position on the tourism body and directorship of the company.
Australian Walking Company promotes luxury eco-accommodation, developing a new commercial hut development on Cradle Mountain in Tasmania and recently winning a South Australian government contract to build luxury lodges on Kangaroo Island.
The tourism chief has defended his perceived conflict of interest over the Queensland developments, saying: “The problem arises if you don’t resolve it in the public interest and I would argue that it’s in the public interest that the best operators in the country … be putting their hat into the ring.”
But Ross Grantham, a corporate law and conflict-of-interest expert from the University of Queensland, told the ABC the situation would be unlikely to meet community standards, even though the regulatory boxes had been ticked.
“It is unlikely to satisfy public expectations where you have a direct business and personal interest in the outcome of a tendering process and you’re allowed to continue to participate in that process,” he said.
“It departs increasingly from public perceptions and community expectations as to how a conflict of interest ought to be handled.
“I think a lot of people would probably be uncomfortable with that.”
Former Queensland Parks and Wildlife manager Peter Ogilvie told the ABC the commercialising of national park trails is financially driven.
“This is purely a tourism exercise, they don’t give a stuff about what the parks were set aside for, which legally under the Nature Conservation Act is primarily for the protection of native plants and animals,” he said.
“The department of tourism is being given a free hand to make money in national parks, and it’s got somebody in charge of TEQ who is a master of making money of out of national parks elsewhere.”
Mr Godfrey argues Tourism Queensland needs to get to grips with promoting such facilities globally if it is to compete in the eco-tourism space.
“The state has had no experience in in-park commercial tourism,” he told the ABC.
“That’s why I’ve been a big proponent of trying to get this, because it needs another string to our bow where we’ve been losing market share for the past 15 years.”
He argues eco-tourism in Queensland Parks is about providing two different types of products.
“It’s just like for my aviation business, you know we provided an economy class for those that wanted a budget-conscious experience and we provided a business class for those that wanted something different,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with providing the full spectrum, but I come back full circle and say that national parks should be accessible to all.”