Meet the changemakers: Peter Gash from Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort

The conservationist has transformed Lady Elliot Island — a forgotten former guano mine at the Great Barrier Reef’s southern tip — into a sustainable and thriving eco resort.Thursday, 15 August 2019

How did you acquire Lady Elliot Island?
My (now) wife and I first came to Lady Elliot Island in 1980 and fell in love with the place. At that time, very few people came here: Lady Elliot had almost washed away after a century of neglect. We saw another island nearby and it wasn’t like this — it was in beautiful shape. We thought maybe someday we’d be able to run a business at Lady Elliot and I learnt to fly in order to bring people to the area. For 10 years I flew people to Lady Musgrave and though we had a passion for the reef, we didn’t have the means to do what we’re doing today. What we did then was educate guests about the beauty of these places and they supported us in return, helping us build a business. Eventually we moved our operation to Lady Elliot. Someone else owned it and, like all those years earlier, we knew the place needed help. We worked for the previous leaseholder on the understanding that when his lease expired, we’d get it renewed and buy the island. We did that in 2005 and once we had control of the island, we could start trying to rejuvenate it. It’s been fantastic because the more we focus on environmental projects on the island, the more the island gives back.

What are some of the projects that have made Lady Elliott such an innovative eco destination?
There have been so many. In 2005, we realised a lot of electricity was being wasted by diesel generators, which was very expensive, so we decided to build a solar power station. The other advantage was that it would get rid of noise, fuel burn, smell and greenhouse gas emissions. By 2008, we’d built it against all the expert advice that we’d ‘never do better than diesel generators’. We sure did — it paid for itself in less than three years. One of the unexpected benefits was that it also got us remarkable publicity and raised awareness too. We also started using refillable bottles and stopped selling plastic water bottles — we were the first island in the Great Barrier Reef to do that. It saved people money, was better for us and better for the environment.

It also shows you how short sighted places are that haven’t made changes like this. When you know the answer to a riddle, it seems silly that you couldn’t get it. It’s reached a critical mass — so many people see what we’re doing and want to help us. It comes back to the more you give, the more you receive. That’s not to say fighting for change falls at your feet: you’ve got to work at it and believe in yourself and your team, and be honest with yourself about what you’re doing and how. If you don’t have a go, you’ll never know.

What can travellers do to make tourism less destructive?
The first step is to be aware. We carbon offset all our flights and give guests the opportunity to pay that — it’s $2 (£1.66) a flight — and with the number of people we move, it means our tiny little resort contributes around $5,000 (£4,141) a month to a major carbon offsetting company. But it all comes back to the passenger — the guest in the plane. It’s not a big expense but it’s something we can all do. It took millions of tiny actions to get the planet to where it is today — it’s going to take millions of tiny actions to undo that damage.

You’ve seen the island improve dramatically since the 1980s but also seen other parts of the reef deteriorate. What are your thoughts on this?
I’m a firm believer that there’s hope out there. We humans do belong on the planet — we’re not an import. Our brains evolved quite dramatically, and we got overconfident, thinking we were clever. Now it’s obvious we need to rethink that — and thankfully there’s a big movement of people rethinking and pushing for change.

Published in the Earth Collection, distributed with the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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