kylie minogue tourism matesong climate change
Tourism Australia's 'Matesong' campaign (Image: Tourism Australia)

Who would want a job at Tourism Australia, the organisation charged with persuading international travellers to head our way?

Tourism Australia finished 2019 on a high note with the (mostly) well-received release of the Kylie Minogue “Matesong” campaign, which it then had to pull a few days into the new year.

The organisation’s 2020 plans didn’t include a catastrophic bushfire season or a global virus scare. Either one would have been like a massive stroke, paralysing part of the tourism industry; together they leave it in an extremely perilous state.

The current tourist season is already a bust for many regions, and potential 2020 visitors who don’t live in a cave are likely having second thoughts about a trip Down Under.

The media isn’t helping. Adrian Bridge, travel editor of the UK’s Telegraph, says he has a vague recollection of news reports on previous Australian bushfires, but nothing even close to the breathless reporting the current fire season has generated in the UK.

Bridge says the flow-on effect was immediate: “Our travel coverage follows news coverage, so naturally enough we’re going easy on Australia as a destination right now, and probably for a little while into the future.”

At the same time Bridge was shifting his coverage to other destinations, elsewhere in the Telegraph Australian-born author and columnist Kathy Lette did her best to rally the troops.

Besides offering some novel reasons for heading Down Under immediately (it’s summer, after all, and there are those lifeguards…), Lette did not hold back on her thoughts about PM Scott Morrison and his reluctance to admit a link between climate change and the bushfire crisis. 

Some will worry about Lette raising that issue, as they’re concerned our government’s climate policies might be another reason for travellers to bypass Australia until further notice.

I’m not convinced.

Many in the US tourism industry had similar concerns after the 2016 election, but the forecast Trump-slump didn’t happen. In 2018 the US hosted almost 80 million visitors — a record high.

The current scope of damage to tourism, property and infrastructure can’t be downplayed, but I’m bullish about mid- to long-term visitor numbers once the fires are out and coronavirus is in check.

The experience of 9/11, SARS, the 2004 tsunami, the Bali bombings and numerous other natural disasters and terrorist events is pretty clear: tourists do come back, and generally sooner than expected.

I’ve watched travellers make surprising decisions for 25 years — either rationalising, forgetting or just plain hoping that everything will be OK when they land at a destination that has so recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons.

I’m more worried about flight times.

The journey to Australia from the US and Europe has always been a major reason for saying no to a trip, and that’s now exacerbated by the Greta-inspired flight-shame movement.

Although that is in its infancy, it has solid momentum and is unlikely to stall through lack of interest. If northern hemisphere travellers get into the habit of looking for alternatives to flying, they’ll find themselves hard-pressed to justify the 20-plus hours of carbon emissions required to reach our shores. Did someone mention the tyranny of distance?

I’ve always thought you’d need to be a masochist to run an airline, but on reflection I suspect running Australia’s peak tourism body is an even more thankless task.

No matter how much money the government throws at them or how good a job they do, the fact is there’s no solution in sight for their biggest challenge: for many international travellers, we’re just too far away.

Rod Cuthbert is the founder and former CEO of Viator (now a part of the TripAdvisor Group). He is now a director of Tokyo-based Veltra Corporation, and a former CEO and chairman of Melbourne-based Rome2rio.

Peter Fray

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