Interpretive planning lies at the heart of nature tourism product delivery. It invites travellers to appreciate and value the natural and cultural heritage of the place they are visiting.

Infrastructure delivers the experience. Interpretive planning helps people attribute lasting values and meanings to this experience.

These associations reach beyond any one sign or other similar message encounter. Interpretive considerations are not the topping to be applied to the product when all the other planning is complete. Rather they stand as the foundation upon which the experience itself must rest.

Interpretive planning embraces a multi-skilled approach that gives as much focus and credence to landscape design, visitor orientation and flow patterns, user safety, ongoing management commitments and digital product support as it does to the research, graphic and structural design of the headline elements that eventually engage with the visitor.

footprints falls crek bus stop hub


In defining its relevance for a post 2020 operating environment, interpretive planning has to adapt and align its operations closely with the demands and expectations of a mobile-optimised world.

Visitors are no longer likely to be engaged as passive consumers of pre packaged product prepared on their behalf by the relevant local knowledge holders. Rather they expect to be able to interact with the message delivery matrix so as to follow their own interests and needs.

Neither at an institutional level it is any longer acceptable to ignore the needs of non English speaking visitors or people with disabilities unable to easily connect with traditional communication media like signage. To this extent, publishing content in both printed, PDF and HTML formats is now recognised as standard best practice for all core agency communications.

Responding to these new operational realities presents not just challenges, but also real opportunities in reimagining the way in which interpretation positions its product for a post 2020 operating environment.

Exploring these new areas of opportunity while at the same time drawing upon a core body of three decades of interpretive product delivery experience, is central to Nature Tourism Service's planning operations.



1. Whole of region planning and product development to access new tourism markets and experiences:

tourism award


From 2003-2008 we undertook the interpretive planning and product roll out for the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and the Greater Blue Mountains Drive.

The strategic innovation underpinning the Greater Blue Mountains Drive product was recognised in 2008 when it won first the state and then the National Award for New Tourism Development.

greater blue mountains map

The success of the Drive product in the tourism award process was based upon the structure laid out in the World Heritage Area Interpretation Plan.

Here we proposed that rather than referring to the Greater Blue Mountains in terms of the seven conservation reserves that comprised it, the World Heritage Area should embrace a geographic context and be defined by four regional sectors.

Each of these then took its name from a prominent Aboriginal named feature within it, thereby helping to anchor the area upon its indigenous heritage.

In 2016, we updated the Drive product to include a smartphone PDF guide allowing people to download the drive maps and trail notes onto their mobile phones for use in areas remote from internet coverage.

gbmd poster gbmd smartphone guide

2. Sharing innovative ways to help Aboriginal communities communicate culturally sensitive information on Country in a way that responds to their desire to ensure their children grow up strong in their Culture:

ballina coastal recreation pathway
ballina coastal pathway opening


The 2017 construction of the Ballina Coastal Recreation Path through the East Ballina Aboriginal Place was an example of how interpretation can be brought in to complement the other project planning operations.

Prior to us becoming involved in this project, the Ballina Shire Council had engaged in detailed and comprehensive discussions with the local Aboriginal community in relation to this project.

Our work was simply to come up with the structural mix to give effect to the array of messages and aspirations associated with this place of great significance to the local Aboriginal comunity.

coastal recreational path picture

contributing to the project design

The Coastal Recreation Path is a 10km shared use path connecting Ballina to Lennox Head. Our key issue was to provide a safe and effective means of comunicating with people as they travelled along the path.

This involved ensuring "step-aside" nodes were included in the design. These mean that a small group can move off the path and take in the information the elder / guide may wish to share with them.

This saw a series of 3 small trackside nodes and one major node established.

planning diagramballina interpretive node

An additional major planning feature of the project was the decision to include a simple web app support platform.

This means that visitors to the pathway have the chance to use their phones to connect with video content of the Aboriginal elders talking about the cultural significance of the place.

The fact that this content was not published generally on the web, but was only easily available to people who were actually on Country at the time of hearing the messages meant that the elders were very positive about this approach.

ballina web app example

3. Interpretation as a contract the onsite communication ensemble enters into with the visitor.

The interpretive media present heritage information in an appealing and easily comprehended manner.

The visitor provides the emotional content and meanings that they may attach to this information.



This reserve located in the Toombullup State Forest 20km north of Mansfield Victoria is the location where three policemen were killed on 26 October 1878 by a group which thereafter became known as the Kelly Gang.

In 2017/18 a complete interpretive refit of the location was undertaken as part of ensuring that an appropriate memorial setting commemorating the three policemen who lost their lives there was included in the visitor experience.

In the first instance, the key challenge was one of landscape design to introduce a meaningful and relevant visitor flow around the site.

stringybark creek siteplan stringybark creek siteplan

letting the story speak for itself

A key feature for the site interpretation was recognising that the venue had been previously swamped by an overlay of modern day meanings and associations. These saw its significance purely in the light of how it related to the Ned Kelly narrative.

Responding to this deficiency invited a new approach. Rather than simply inserting a new set of modern day interpretations and meanings, the interpretation plan was built around presenting Stringybark Creek from the perspective of an 1878 newspaper reader.

To this end contemporary newspaper reports were included extensively in order to allow people to delve into the detail should they wish to do so.

Surrounding this emotive content, the modern narrative was kept intentionally simple and focussed.

This presents statements of fact that are easily acceptable and amenable to any interpretation a particular reader may choose to ascribe to them.

The success of this approach was evident in the way the ensemble was approved without substantial amendment following a full public review process undertaken by Heritage Victoria.

stringybark creek sign example

4. Helping Aboriginal people care for their Country by assisting them to share culturally sensitive material in a manner they feel is appropriate and over which they have complete control:

mungo meeting place opening


In 2010 as part of a specialist team assembled by Epacris Environmental Consultants, we undertook the interpretive planning for the Mungo Meeting Place.

The challenge this project faced was how to interpret Mungo's human fossil trackways - the world's largest collection of ice age fossil footprints.

Today the location of this large ensemble of footprints is a carefully guarded secret and the footprints themselves are covered by a protective layer of sand.

Rather than embrace the idea of a technological 3D re-creation of the trackways delivered within the walls of the adjacent visitor centre as had been envisaged for the trackway interpretation, we recommended that they be experienced outdoors - in the open landscape that gave birth to them.

To this end, a section of 3D scanned replica footprints were installed in a custom designed amphitheatre created beside the visitor centre.

This venue also included special facilities to allow the Traditional Owners to gather around a fire beside the replicas of the footprints of their ancestors.

mungo meeting place opening mungo meeting place mungo meeting place

5. Defining the different zones of engagement for visitor orientation versus interpretive content:

ACT park entry sign ACT park entry sign


Strategic interpretive planning and design has an integral role to play in the delivery of signage ensembles for providers of nature tourism experiences.

Central to this is understanding the point where visitor orientation stops and interpretation starts. This was a pivotal issue we addressed in developing the new agency wide signage ensemble for the ACT Parks and Conservation Service in 2017.

This diagram from the strategy reflects our approach to interpretive planning. It embodies the importance of good landscape design principles in underpining good interpretive responses.

It ensures that the right messages are being delivered in the appropriate settings relative to the visitor's stage in their overall trip experience.

avct orientation diagram

People's first need in arriving in an unfamiliar setting is to orientate themselves to their new surroundings. "Where am I relative to where I have come from, where do I go from here and where are the nearest toilets?".

In essence orientation material is the "need to know" content that a visitor must have in order to execute their trip plan safely and in accordance with park regulations.

Interpretation by contrast involves "want to know" content. Where visitor orientation materials deliver the experience, interpretive media help the visitor ascribe value and meaning to their undertaking.

This understanding is an essential underpinning of all good interpretive planning. It avoids the problem of placing content in inappropriate places.

act parks strategy act orientation sign

A feature of the signage ensemble was the need to provide a prominent Welcome to Country message anchoring the overall sign content.

This features on both the front and rear top of the sign in slightly different formats.

The rear side of the panel viewed as people leave the reserve also encourages them to stay in touch with the park experience via social media as well as exploring options for them to become involved in community parkcare programs.