bushfires sydney smoke fire
(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

With bushfires still raging, there has never been a more crucial time to acknowledge the importance of our natural environment to the Australian economy.

Tourism has been an enormous growth area for Australia in an era where a lot of our other industries have been standing still. Visitor numbers have doubled in the last decade alone as China’s growth rubs off on us. We will soon be regularly seeing 1 million visitors per month.

But the devastation wrought by the infernos has raised fears our tourism industry could disappear in a blink.

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What is tourism, you might ask, other than the attraction of the impression of a country? And what impression does Australia create when the images circulating the globe are of towering blazes and koala carcasses?

Have the fires permanently destroyed Australia’s international reputation as a tourism destination? And is an economy that depends so heavily on tourism an unstable and unhealthy one?

Bouncing back

It’s instructive to look to other countries: let’s take Japan after its nuclear meltdown, and Greece after its financial/political crisis.

As data from the Japan National Tourism Organisation shows, even a huge tsunami and nuclear meltdown couldn’t keep tourists away. After 2011’s enormous disaster that killed 18,500 people and made 371 square kilometres around Fukushima uninhabitable, it took only a couple of years for tourist numbers to resume their former growth trajectory.

The story from Greece is similar.

For a few grim years, the world’s attention was focused on the country’s corruption, instability and malaise caused by a debt crisis. But then Greece bounced back beautifully.

It seems that crises (physical or political) are not always lasting impediments to people’s desire to visit.

The value of the invisible

There is a great deal of muddy thinking about the service industries; partly because they are full of ephemeral perceptions, invisible outputs, and small-scale infrastructure. These factors, people conclude, might somehow make weak foundations for a national economy.

I utterly disagree. The worst problems come out in discussion of manufacturing and agriculture — many supposedly serious people have strongly felt ideas about how those jobs are “real” in a way waiting on tables or being a tour guide is not.

They are making a simple mental elision: interpreting the concrete nature of the output with the durability of the industry itself. Manufacturing looks so solid, with its grand factories and its truckloads of outputs. But as we discovered in the case of car manufacturing, and clothing before it, these can disappear in an instant.

In fact, the cruel economics of global supply chains say if making something in Australia costs a few per cent more than making it overseas, the whole industry in Australia can get wrapped up. What looks solid is in fact ephemeral.

People say disparaging things about the service sector. They refer to becoming “a nation of burger flippers” or “an economy where we all hold doors open for each other”. In fact, economies like Singapore with huge service industries are some of the strongest in the world, and the economists who lionise concrete industries are like generals fighting the last war.  

Of course, services industries are not without risks. Tourism faces an enormous challenge to find a way to go zero net carbon. Australia — a country with no land borders — cannot depend on substituting high-speed rail for aviation to prop up its tourist sector. And, as we’ve seen in recent days, a viral pandemic can affect human flows, too.

But the history of tourism is deep. People have been travelling for pleasure for as long as people have had some income to spare. We should feel no shame about being a nation that has an enormous service sector, and we should insist on supporting the tourist industry at least as much as mining or manufacturing.

Australia’s natural environment — from the Great Barrier Reef to the forests of Tasmania — is unique and beautiful, and people the world over will want to visit it for as long as we can preserve it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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