Warrnambool's beloved penguins could bring in hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars to the city as virus restrictions are lifted and people return to travel.
A Warrnambool Deakin University study into the recreational economic benefits of the Middle Island Project found the destination to be "a significant drawcard for the region" with one-in-five tourists specifically travelling to Warrnambool to see the little penguins and their guardian Maremma dogs.
School of Life and Environmental Science honours student Shelby Lyn Schumacher calculated the recreational value alone to be more than $210,000.
"This figure is only part of total economic value of the project," she said.
"The number doesn't include money on accommodation, or in local shops and restaurants as a result of coming to see the little penguins, so I'm confident that the return on investment is even greater for Warrnambool City Council.
"The data proves the value of continuing financial support for conserving the penguin population, and it is a great example of how small conservation projects can lead to economic gains for communities."
The Maremma guardian dogs were introduced to Middle Island as an experiment to see whether they could help protect the beloved penguins during breeding season after foxes almost wiped out the colony.
The experiment proved successful, inspiring the Australian film Oddball.
"I wanted to see whether the Middle Island Project is economically viable," Ms Schumacher said.
"My instinct was that it draws significant tourist numbers to Warrnambool, so I tested this idea for the long-term benefit of the project. Island tours are popular with visitors. Of all who took the tour, 62 per cent pre-booked before arriving in Warrnambool.
"45 per cent of the people who visited the established drawcard destination Flagstaff Hill had either taken the Middle Island tour, or planned to before leaving the region."
But Ms Schumacher said there was a bigger story to tell from her research, beyond monetary value.
"It demonstrates the importance of local support for conservation and tourism," she said.
"By targeting locals for support we can indirectly target those who are visiting the Warrnambool region as most are visiting family and friends. It also helps to find sponsors and volunteers for the project.
"While little penguins are not endangered, this shows that people want to conserve small populations and protecting these populations will ultimately contribute to keeping an entire population from becoming endangered."
Ms Schumacher hopes her research will help secure the future of the little penguin colony at Middle Island.
"Ultimately I'm an ecologist and this study is about ensuring that long-term investment into the Middle Island Project continues," she said.
"Environment and economics may sound conflicting, but more and more environmental scientists are aware of the interdisciplinary approach required to manage animal populations - ecological economics are part of the equation in conserving habitats and wildlife."
Ms Schumacher, who is studying marine biology, said she loved how the Middle Island tours made young children excited about conservation.
"Seeing it from a different perspective from a young age is really awesome and they grow up respecting our environment and the importance of conservation," she said.
Warrnambool City Council mayor Tony Herbert said the university study "built a picture of the importance and benefits of the little penguin project".
"From not only a wildlife conservation perspective but it also provides insight into the economic and tourism value for Warrnambool," he said.
Deakin School of Life and Environmental Sciences' Dr Anne Wallis, who was part of the team which introduced the Maremma dogs to Middle Island in 2006, said modern ecologists must understand the relationship between conservation, society and economics.
"Times have changed, so we as scientists have had to change our approach and understanding too," Dr Wallis said.
"There's no longer any doubt about the importance of eco-tourism for helping to conserve wildlife. More and more ecological projects have to demonstrate a level of self-sustainability to truly stand a chance at conserving wildlife in the long term.
"Wildlife managers are also coming to accept that conservation, economics and tourism must go hand-in-hand with inter-disciplinary research work for the greater environmental good."
The story Little penguins hold big hope for tourists' return first appeared on The Standard.