Problem or Opportunity

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-By John Boley

Is the tourism glass half-full or half-empty? It is a tradition in the travel industry, not just here, to moan about the paucity of prospects and the problem of making a buck. The strong dollar means every Australian is hell-bent on leaving to explore the rest of the world instead of Coober Pedy. The recession in Europe means no-one arrives from there anymore and there just are not enough New Zealanders to make up the difference.

Excuse or reality? Well, official figures are not so pessimistic. “Despite the weaknesses in the economies of some of Australia’s traditional markets and the impact of natural disasters, visitor arrivals to Australia in the year to December 2011 were relatively stable compared to 2010, down only 0.2 per cent,” according to the tourism ministry.

International arrivals increased in 11 of Australia’s top 20 markets. Arrivals from China remained buoyant, increasing 19.4 per cent in 2011 to 542,000 arrivals, making it Australia’s third largest inbound market behind New Zealand and the UK. Increases were also seen from Singapore and Malaysia, up 3.4 per cent and 1.8 per cent respectively.

Arrivals for business travel increased by six per cent in 2011 while other sectors such as holiday travel decreased by 4.1 per cent.

Naturally there are individual regional and temporary fluctuations. For example, last December short term visitor arrivals decreased 0.5 per cent year on year. A 12.2 per cent decrease in arrivals from the UK prompted this, but it was caused not by the Poms running out of cash at last but because a year earlier they had all come down to get thrashed in the Ashes (except that all went badly wrong).

Martin Ferguson is minister for tourism as well as resources and his comment was: “While the high Australian dollar and affordable airfares are continuing to make overseas travel feasible for more Australians, Australia is consistently attracting a record number of international visitors.”

The upward trend in the number of Australians travelling overseas is also continuing, with departures up 7.1 per cent in December 2011 compared to December 2010. Without attempting to investigate the peculiar finance structure of Qantas (we would need a very large book), it is pretty obvious that airlines can prosper only if their planes run full in both directions and that quite a few people are employed in the outbound travel sector, so it’s not necessarily so unpatriotic as some critics say to take that business, shopping or leisure trip overseas.

But when tourists arrive in Australasia, what do they find – and what do they want to find? This is a particularly vexing question following a recent piece in The Australian entitled Tourism industry gone on holiday: “To see what is wrong with Australia’s tourism industry, you need to go no further than one of its most iconic sights, the Twelve Apostles on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.

“Take a look at that place,” says Roger Grant, head of the regional tourism body Geelong Otway Tourism. “It is one of the most amazing sights in Australia and yet the only facility there for tourists is little more than a big toilet block. People get off the coaches, scratch their heads and wonder why there is nothing else to do.'”

A couple of days later, still on the Great Ocean Road, Colac-Otway Council rejected a five-star hotel proposal for the Apollo Bay harbour put forward by Tourism Victoria. The mayor said a development of the harbour will proceed but that most of the local community was opposed to the hotel “and the council has listened to its concerns. Tourism Victoria has been driving the need for a hotel project, saying that Apollo Bay needs a five-star hotel but the fact is the community doesn’t want a large hotel on the harbour ridge and it’s becoming apparent that promises of funding in return for acceptance of a hotel were little more than a bit of hope,” he told ABC.

Mr Grant continued, comparing Twelve Apostles with “infrastructure facilities at the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. Environmental lobby groups have held the government to ransom over stopping private development and the result is that the Great Ocean Road does not give the experience which international visitors expect. We can’t compete.”

I’ve been to the Twelve Apostles. And I’ve been to the Grand Canyon. I know what I prefer. Quite a few years ago, on the occasion I first visited the 12 Apostles (and stood for a while wondering why I was feeling sorry for a group of rocks), I passed a couple as I returned to my car. “No camera?” they enquired in some surprise. “I don’t need one,” I replied – truthfully, because the images are still with me in my own personal memory.

Meanwhile in Arizona, a native American Indian recalled for USA Today how she “wept when she first heard of plans to build” the tacky tourist attraction known as the Skywalk that defaces the western side of the awesome Grand Canyon. As USA Today further reported, Skywalk is the centerpiece of Grand Canyon West, 9,000 acres set aside for tourist development. Plans called for a visitors centre, high-end restaurant, museum, cinema, and meeting space. “Off-road turf for Hummer tours is being expanded. A resort hotel may eventually take shape. And perhaps most audaciously, the tribe is considering running a tram from the rim to the canyon floor.” Some $45 million was spent on extending the airport (at the moment a fight is under way to limit the amount of flights allowed over the Canyon, which – I can vouch for this – is a staggering sight from the air but spoiled from ground level if viewed to the accompaniment of aero engines and choppers.

Does Mr Grant really want this sort of wanton vandalism in southern Victoria? Would he like to get his developers’ hands on the Great Barrier Reef? One of the priceless advantages of Oz (and New Zealand, of course) is its natural beauty – that is, undeveloped beauty.

Don’t dilute it. Don’t make it like everywhere else. Beijing today is a cleaner, more boring Singapore. Shanghai’s Xintiandi is pure upmarket concrete jungle. The Peak in Hong Kong is disfigured by a ghastly ‘visitors centre’ which ruined the view, which was why you climbed the peak in the first place. Neighbouring Macau chipped in by destroying almost every vestige of Portuguese culture (even down to grilled sardines and vino verde at my favourite outdoor restaurant in Coloane).

The only thing to do in Bangkok is shopping – in identikit stores with precisely the same range of goods as you’ll find in Chadstone Mall. Other tourist areas of Thailand, ruined by avaricious, unregulated developers and lazy, unscrupulous operators, have been deserted by high-spending Europeans and are now filled with cheap package-tour visitors, arriving by the 747-load from Omsk or Irkutsk and spending next to nothing during their stay. In Bali, Kuta Beach has long since won the battle for the tourist dollar over pretty little Ubud. And while I am quite taken with the geysers, Rotorua is otherwise a dull strip mall.

Strangely, perhaps, the coming influx of independent Chinese tourists can help to safeguard Australia’s natural uniqueness from the predations of developers. They want something different. Don’t underestimate them: they are increasingly discerning and demonstrably cash-rich. They want the best. The PRC’s easing of restrictions on travel visas has had, and will soon have even more, massive ramifications for the world’s tourism industry and Oz stands to benefit disproportionately.

Elsewhere in this issue you can read more about one enterprising travel destination (Balgownie Estate, in the Yarra Valley) which is leveraging wealthy Chinese people’s interest in good wines to entice them to its distinctly upmarket property to stay and indulge. Thanks to closer ties with China (think minerals and energy, but also think technology, expertise and management – for example, the last time I interviewed the president of Ford China – in Chongching, claimed to be the biggest city in the world – he was an Aussie), Australia is actually a well-known property there, possibly even more than in Europe (excluding the Old Country). Unlike Europe, though, everywhere is new to Chinese travellers.

But change is required. How many hotel managers out there can say any of their staff speaks Mandarin, or Cantonese? The Australian travel industry must adapt to meet the coming boom in the outbound market from China, said Pacific Asia Travel Association CEO Martin Craigs recently. Australia must be “export ready” for an increase in tourists from China in the coming years.
“It’s a global issue because it’s so huge,” he said. Of the 100 million outbound mainland Chinese tourists predicted by PATA, half are expected to visit Hong Kong and Macau, “but that still leaves the odd million a week going somewhere else.”

The Chinese are “tourists who are high net worth and spending a great deal when on holiday.” For instance, high-end British department store Selfridges now employs 10 Mandarin-speaking staff for its Chinese customers who spend an average of US$1,638. “So if you are a retailer, it makes sense to provide people who can welcome those visitors.” Australian travel operators need to step up to ensure they receive the maximum benefit from the China market.

To finish, here’s the view of my mate Chas, who runs the TukTuk Thai restaurant in Russell, in the Bay of Islands (a lovely place, incidentally, that has wisely never been overdeveloped). “It’s almost impossible to keep afloat in today’s travel business,” he told me over a beer. “But then it always was.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:13 AM AEDT