Doing tourism better: Federal hearings plan for North

EVENTS SEASON: The next few months will be busy in the centre with the Camel Cup and the Alice Desert Festival.
EVENTS SEASON: The next few months will be busy in the centre with the Camel Cup and the Alice Desert Festival. Contributed

A federal inquiry into tourism in the North has extended its date for submissions. And public hearings are being planned for 2017 at soon-to-be announced locations in the Northern Territory. But what are we doing about flights to the Centre?


Alice Springs is bang in the middle of events season.

As Sarah Reid writes in a recent travel article for Britain's Independent newspaper, now is a great time to visit the artistic capital of the Red Centre, where there are "more art galleries (per capita) than anywhere else in the country".

Actually, during the cooler months from April to October Alice is perpetually in festival mode, with so many events billed it's hard for locals to keep up.

It's an exciting time when anyone and everyone gets involved in organising one do or another.

But with many still rolling swags and cleaning camp stoves after the Finke Desert Race at the weekend, it is hard to imagine the annual Camel Cup will be upon us by July and the Alice Desert Festival - Central Australia's premier arts bash - soon after.

In between will be other attractions, but, as Sarah Reid writes, there's also plenty to do in Alice Springs at other times of the year as well.

Tourism is, in fact, one of several lifeblood industries that keep Central Australia - and the rest of the North - alive and humming.

In the NT, tourism provides some 16,000 jobs both directly and indirectly and contributes $1.9bn to the economy in terms of Gross Added Value.

Australia-wide, the NT can claim 5% of international visitors, and is where 3% of domestic tourists will take their holidays, on 2015 figures.

Compared with other destinations, the Red Centre has several competitive strengths, including its picturesque desert environment, cultural landscape and often unique experiences, including the already-mentioned quirky events.

But there are plenty of challenges too, including the difficulty and cost of getting to the Centre (think airfare prices and limited flights) and the relative affordability of those other destinations offering similar experiences.

More than one third of visitors to the Centre are international, which means the region is easy prey to fluctuations in global conditions.

Talk around Sunday barbecues in Alice can often turn to the future, ways of growing tourism and how to do it better.

During 2013, international tourists spent some $19.3 billion in Australia, so the question is worthy of an answer, especially considering rates of growth in tourism have declined since the 1980s and 90s.

Asked how such growth might look over the next 25 years, researchers at Deloitte's produced a 2014 report called "Positioning for Prosperity? Catching the next wave", which identifies tourism as one of five super growth sectors in which Australia, like the Centre, has a competitive advantage.

The following year, the Federal Government's White Paper on developing Northern Australia recognised tourism as an industry with "bright prospects in the North" and that Northern Australia could "capitalise on its iconic locations, open spaces and clean environment to host the millions of tourists every year".

Some trends in tourism can already be identified, with travellers increasingly wanting authentic experiences, domestic travel moving to shorter breaks rather than extended holidays, and the focus of travel being more on relationships rather than experiences.

There is increasing use of the internet for booking (>70% for research, >50% for bookings) with information gathering about destinations often occurring on social media.

As far as doing tourism better, from late November 2016 the Federal Government invited suggestions from interested parties in the North, from Cairns across the Top End to Karratha, and down to the Centre.

Called the Inquiry into Opportunities and Methods for Stimulating the Tourism Industry in Northern Australia, the investigation has so far received submissions from 47 operators, industry bodies, government organisations and individuals.

In the Territory alone, these include Tourism Central Australia and Tourism Top End, NT Airports, NT Government, Charles Darwin University, Ninti One Ltd, Kakadu Tourism, and individuals including Michael Sitzler, and can be viewed online.

Originally, the Inquiry was slated to close on February 16, as still stated on the website.

But a spokesman for the Inquiry has assured Heartbeat it remains open to submissions, with a reporting date estimated for the end of 2017.

Furthermore, the inquiry is in the process of planning a number of public hearings in the Northern Territory.

According to the spokesman, a draft program for the hearings is now under review with dates and locations soon to follow.

Tourism NT's vision is to grow the sector to $2.2 billion by 2020, as measured in overnight expenditure.

But while goals and inquiries are certainly worthy of our time, one constraining item remains neglected year after year.

For as industry pitches its products and marketing campaigns spruik Territory assets, tourists and locals alike pay through the nose for a limited number of airline seats into and out of the Centre.

Even at the height of the tourism season, there is just one (expensive) flight per day to Sydney, and only two per week direct to Brisbane.

Let's hope the issue of bums on planes gets a prominent seat at the hearings when they arrive.

Topics:  alice springs federal government northern territory tourism

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