Monday, February 14, 2011

Tourism down but by no means out

As the ravages of Cyclone Yasi leave scars across the northern landscape, and as much of the rest of Queensland continues with a clean up and repair bill from successive flood inundations, recreational visitor numbers to various part of the state will inevitably tumble in the short term. Tourism’s recovery from natural disasters will occupy headlines for a time, and the industry will recover. As it does so, industry leaders could begin to focus on some of the man-made disasters which deserve equal attention in any rebuilding and growth plans.

Tourism industry representatives have so often predicted their industry’s near death that there’s a Cassandra element about it. From pilot’s strikes to the Ansett collapse, to S11, SARs, bird flu, the high Australian dollar, Cyclone Larry and now Yasi – each has prompted dire warnings of imminent demise accompanied by the request for bigger advertising budgets. You’d be forgiven for thinking the industry was one of our most vulnerable, based on the repeated prophesies of doom.

But the industry over the years has proven itself remarkably robust. International visitor numbers may not reflect long term predictions or industry ambitions, and Queensland’s share of that traffic may have slipped, but the numbers generally have held up. In fact, last year, there were 2% more international visitors to Queensland than the year before. This is a handy snapshot of international tourism trends, and it doesn’t provide evidence of past bloodbaths. The picture isn’t one of constant growth, but it is one of relative stability.

Domestic travel has fared worse, but with a strong dollar, who can blame Australians for seizing the opportunity to see the world.? That too will return to a balance once the dollar falls below current levels (which must surely happen at some stage). And business travel continues to perform strongly. The industry might itself be preoccupied by images of white beaches and bikini girls, but men in dark suits attending meetings and conferences actually generate more nights and more dollars spent. It’s why Brisbane is by far the largest tourism market in the state, surpassing the Gold Coast. Room rates for hotel rooms in Brisbane are hardly being sacrificed, and even discount room site suggests that $300 to $450 per night is the going rate for the Brisbane CBD. That’s not dissimilar to what you’d pay for a decent hotel room in New York City, which is hardly evidence of a bloodbath.

So the reality will be that, despite the horrors of Yasi and the floods that affected much of the state, the industry will recover. As it does though, it might be timely for industry leaders to focus on some of the man-made problems that have been wreaking damage just as effectively as natural events.

Let’s start with the ridiculous difficulty faced by tour operators or developers of new facilities, trying to create new product for the leisure or business travel market. What the industry desperately needs is a widening and dizzying array of new tourism experiences and offerings, from Cape York to Coolangatta. Each new experience creates a richer picture of the Queensland offering and it builds the incentive to travel here. It also means each new operation has its own marketing budget, which combined with others is a more effective way of luring visitors than government sponsored campaigns. (What happened to that ‘new brand’ campaign “Queensland, Where Australia Shines”. Don’t remember? The cringe factor can be found here. It’s now been replaced with ‘Queensland, ready to welcome you.’ Tourism’s elder statesman Jim Kennedy suggested in October last year that industry agencies were out of ideas and in need of a shakeup. He could well be right).

The challenges aren’t just faced by larger businesses talking major resorts - even the smallest operations seem stymied by planning and environmental regulations. For example in Cape York, traditional owners in several communities were hoping to build tourism experiences but the environmental bureaucrats combined with the politics of Green preferences meant those hopes were dashed in the form of Wild Rivers Legislation. On Fraser Island, chances of anything much happening at Orchid Beach were killed off by environmental forces claiming the area too sensitive, even to beach camping at Waddy Point. On the Gold Coast some years back, attempts to build a skyrail experience to the Springbrook Hinterland were similarly strangled in regulation and anti-anything politics. Earlier this month, developer Graeme Juniper abandoned plans for a $500 million eco resort in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, after a fruitless seven year battle with the local (and allegedly pro-tourism) council. I even know of one dairy farming family who wanted to run Dairy Farm tours in school holidays for city kids in south east Queensland, but the town planners in the local council heaped so many regulations and application fees on their idea that it too died a deliberate death by bureaucracy.

The point here is that whether it’s a micro tourism proposal or a major one, whether it involves simply accessing natural areas or building structures on private or public land, the regulatory environment is tilted heavily against the proponent. This has become a sort of Berlin Wall of regulatory opposition, too difficult for most to scale and too big to go around. Erected in the name of environmental protection or safety, these regulations have had the effect of achieving environmental paranoia and a nanny state obsession with the precautionary principle. And they are strangling the chances of new tourism products being established, which are essential to the future viability of the industry.

Without new tourism experiences or new physical assets, the Queensland tourism picture will start to fade like a postcard from Surfers Paradise in the 1960s. It possibly already is, unaided by tourism campaigns which largely turn their back on promoting business tourism in the capital city and instead trot out the same beaches, the same palm trees, and the same rainforest. For the industry, identifying this massive obstacle to the development of new and expanded tourism offerings ought to be a very high priority.

And when it comes to calls for increased marketing budgets, perhaps we could start to press for campaigns which make direct connections to districts and regions. Instead of announcing some new $10 million tourism campaign designed to bring visitors back to Cairns, for example, give the money to Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin in exchange for free or heavily discounted seats. If a Sydney-Cairns return flight is worth $250, $10 million would be worth 40,000 free return seats, even more if the subsidy was one way only, or for discounts rather than free seats. Over the course of six months, an extra 40,000 visitors spending money in Cairns (or any other distressed destination) would have a direct bearing on the profits of businesses that employ people and that constitute what is called the tourism industry. Initiatives which go direct to stimulating visitor traffic have to be superior to cliché ridden advertising campaigns.

Finally, it would be good to start undoing the assumption that our environment is too fragile and far too sensitive to allow any more intrusions by people. Operators and visitors may have impacts, and these are manageable. You can’t have industry, jobs or create taxes to pay for social services by locking up vast areas with ‘DO NOT ENTER’ signs.

The obsessions with ‘damage’ caused by walking or 4WD tracks in wilderness areas, with water quality because of people’s sunscreen, or the outright alarm at the prospect of clearing a few trees to make way for a structure of some sort, must surely look a bit ridiculous now.

Have another look at the images of vast devastation caused by Yasi, or of the floods of 2011. Thousands of hectares of trees and forest damaged, rivers and creeks unrecognisable. Yet we’re precious about the relatively minor impacts of man and in the process are choking off an industry’s future prospects to develop new product.