Virgin Australia founder Brett Godfrey has approached the NSW government with a proposal to operate the state's first ''great walk'', building private lodges within the Blue Mountains national park.
It was an unsolicited bid, but NSW Environment Minister Robyn Parker is set to announce an ambitious five-year program to build ''great walks'' in NSW national parks to compete with New Zealand and Tasmanian multi-day tracks.
About 10,000 international travellers walk the Milford Sound Track in New Zealand each year, and 7400 walkers complete Tasmania's Overland Track, but NSW has no comparable walking experiences.
Mr Godfrey and Virgin co-founder Rob Sherrard took over the Tasmanian Walking Company, which runs private trekking on the world-ranked Overland Track six months ago.
The president of Bushwalking NSW, David Trinder, said NSW had fallen behind and its tracks were ''wrecked''.
Mr Trinder, whose group represents 63 clubs and 9000 members, said long-distance bushwalking in NSW was only for experienced specialists, because walks such as the Kanangra to Katoomba route in the Blue Mountains had little signage and no path drainage.
''You have to know where to turn off. There's no actual track,'' he said.
International visitors were missing out on experiencing the NSW bush, he said.
''NSW is not well developed compared to other states. There is great potential here,'' he said.
On Sunday, Ms Parker will call for the public to nominate which walks should be included in the government's ''Great Walks'' program.
NSW wanted to be the ''No.1, top-of-mind walking destination'', she said. The government will invest in track upgrades, signage and board walks, starting with $2.4 million to revitalise the Royal Coast Track in the Royal National Park and the Sydney Harbour Scenic Walk.
The government would also consider building huts in national parks, if required.
The Great Walks of Australia website lists no NSW walks. The only NSW walks to be included on Tourism Australia's website are Kanangra and the Six Foot Track in the Blue Mountains.
In its letter to the NSW government, the Tasmanian Walking Company said its proposal was designed to qualify for acceptance as a ''Great Walks of Australia product''.
The company has an exclusive licence to operate commercially guided tours using private lodges on the Overland Track and Bay of Fires in Tasmania, offering wine and hot showers to walkers paying up to $3150 in peak season for a five-day walk.
The company targets walkers over 50 with high incomes. ''They want to engage with nature but will not venture into parks if they have to carry supplies or tents,'' it said.
It has proposed a three- to five-day walk along the Six Foot Track and through the Kanangra-Boyd National Park, which it says would generate revenue for NSW Parks and Wildlife with ''limited impact'', if properly run and marketed.
There is debate over the increasing commercialisation of parks in NSW.
The National Parks Association has criticised a recent parliamentary report that called for more tourism development in parks.
Bushwalking Australia president Chris Towers said although he wouldn't want to see commercial operators given exclusive use of tracks, the Tasmania/New Zealand experience had shown they could coexist with self-guided walks, with careful construction of private huts. ''Every other state has iconic long distance walking tracks that … generate tourism,'' he said. ''NSW has such an incredible natural estate - why not … get people out there?''
Take a hike
The Overland Track, Tasmania. 6 days, Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair. Cost: $200 (self-guided) or $3150 guided (private huts, food, wine).
Milford Sound Track, New Zealand. 4-5 days. Cost: $162 for government hut pass, or $2095 guided (private lodges, food).
Larapinta Trail, NT. Cost: From $2195 for 6 days guided (food, swag, camping gear).
Great Ocean Walk, Victoria. Cost: $169 for 7 nights camp site fee, $2795 for 7 days (luxury lodge)
Bibbulmun Track, Western Australia. 1000km. Cost: Simple wooden shelters and water tanks at each site for independent walkers. Or $2700 for 9 days guided, including hotels and food.