The slogan “There’s nothing like Australia” has been Tourism Australia’s global consumer marketing campaign since 2010. It highlights the country’s best attractions; one of its ads talks about thousands of reasons to visit the country, from natural wonders, such as the Great Barrier Reef, to man-made marvels, such as the Sydney Opera House.
I have been traveling through Australia for a couple of weeks, from Sydney to the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Cairns, Palm Cove and the Great Barrier Reef. And the ads are accurate about the beauty and grandeur of Australia, despite inadequacy of tourist services.
I write this week from Australia’s Northern Territory, a semi-arid, sparsely populated and less developed part of the country but rich in cultural diversity and natural beauty. It is home to Uluru, an Aboriginal sacred site and the world’s largest rock.
Australia is trying to attract tourists, but still remains off the beaten path for most. Judging from my experience here over the past weeks, it is clear that Australia has to do more to attract them than just possession of fascinating natural wonders.
The number of international tourists visiting Australia reached a record 6.6 million people in 2013-2014, and is expected to reach seven million next year. While these are respectable numbers, they are minuscule by comparison to top destinations such as the United States, Spain and France. Australia gets about one fourth the numbers of tourists visiting Austria, for example.
Some may say that it is the distance which keeps tourists away, but some of Australia’s smaller neighbors in Asia and the Pacific get much more tourists than it does. For example, Singapore and Macau each gets twice as many tourists, Hong Kong gets four times as many.
In addition to international visitors, there is a considerable element of domestic tourism, contributing some 40-70 billion Australian dollars to GDP annually. International tourism contributes about 31 billion dollars. In total, tourism contributes about 4 percent of GDP, provides half a million jobs, especially in Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. A recent independent report identified tourism as one of five super-growth sectors that will drive economic growth and job creation in Australia over the next 20 years.
For these reasons, tourism advocates fault the current government for downgrading the sector since coming to office last September. They cite the fact that the first time in 40 years, Australia has no minister for tourism. They also allege that it has cut tourism grants, terminated researchers providing crucial tourism data to investors and the tourism industry, and closed down the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Survey of Tourist Accommodation and other institutions supporting tourism.
They especially criticize the government’s reduced interest in domestic tourism, which accounts for over half of Australia’s tourism sector. During an aviation summit held in Sydney this week, industry spokesmen and opposition representatives accused the government of ordering Tourism Australia to focus solely on international marketing.
The new government appears to favor a different approach: Focus on well-to-do tourists. On Friday (Aug. 8), Tourism Australia Managing Director John O’Sullivan, speaking at the Australia Pacific Aviation Summit, said that "(Australia) is a high-end experiential destination, 43 in world arrivals, but number one in spend per visitor per trip... that's why we have taken that line... to go for 30 to 49-year-old independent travelers in markets such as Malaysia and Singapore.”
Tourism Australia’s Chairman Geoff Dixon echoed the sentiment, saying: “Australia is a high yield country attracting high end visitors.” However, Dixon noted that Australia also needed to focus not only on greater air access but on filling the gaps in high-end hotel offerings.
Despite these ambitions, Australia has a long way to go before it can become a top destination for tourists, regardless of their income. While it is accurate to say that tourism in Australia is extremely expensive compared to Europe and the United States, let alone Asia or Africa, the level of service does not match those high expenditures.
First, Australia’s hotels are unpredictable and seem to rely on self-evaluation and self-discipline.
Second, there is a somewhat unique challenge of the sheer size of the country; its land area is around 7.7 million square kilometers, spread over 4,000 kilometers from east to west and 3,700 from north to south. Distances between cities can be in the thousands of miles. With those dimensions, the only practical way to travel from one tourist attraction to the next is flying, as we did.
However, we discovered some serious inadequacies in air travel, where Qantas, controls some 70 percent of the domestic market. There are a couple of other airlines, such as Virgin Australia and Tiger Air, but Qantas dominates with its sheer size and extensive network.
However, Qantas is not doing as well as it once had. It is losing money and its edge, and as such affecting tourism potential. Australians love to hate Qantas, but have to use it anyway. Established in 1920, it is one of the oldest airlines in the world, and its age shows. Although it was privatized in 1995, the airline corporate culture is still bureaucratic and inefficient, as I witnessed firsthand on several occasions. Most flights I took were late and ground staff were unable to meet the simplest demands. For example, the ticket office in Alice Springs could not issue an international ticket to neighboring New Zealand. Unpredictability was another challenge: Booking confirmation and boarding passes do not guarantee you a seat. People get stranded on a regular basis; one time we and many others were stranded for over 16 hours at Sydney airport, one of Qantas’ main hubs. The ability of the company staff and management to deal with such events were stretched to the breaking point.
As Australia appears determined to attract high-rolling international tourists, there is urgent need to try to make travel in the country more reliable and predictable, with smarter regulation and oversight of both the hotel and aviation sectors.