Photo above: Local woman Doreen Nakamarra is hunting for witchetty grubs with tourist Jade Yang, from Shanghai. She was in a group with prominent Chinese art dealer, Sun Kongyang, in The Centre recently for the Desert Mob art fair, and hosted by tourism operator Steve Strike. Photo below: Brendan Heenan’s pancakes are a charming value-add as powered sites alone are no longer enough for tourists on the road.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
The tourism industry in Alice Springs has had two sharp consecutive drops in annual earnings. The total spend by visitors dropped 16% from $300m in calendar year 2009 to $252m in 2010, and 26% from $360m in financial year 2010 to $265m in 2011, according to figures from the Territory Government’s Tourism NT. The amounts are not adjusted for inflation. There was a sharp drop in visitor nights and a small rise in the spend per visitor (see graph).
The industry has been flat since at least 2004 with small peaks in 2006 and 2009. One major hotel says it sold 13,356 room nights since January, down from 14,552 for the same period last year and well below a five year average of of 15,241.
This equates to an occupancy rate for the current year of just 35%. A prominent tour company had 11,250 passengers this season, down from 12,150 last season, but well up on that company’s five year average of 9776. All other operators we contacted were tight-lipped.
The conventions business is also poor this year: there were just 23 events. The average number of people attending was around 80 (the capacity of the Convention Centre is 500), and the average length was 2.3 days. Peter Grigg, the CEO of the industry lobby Tourism Central Australia (TCA), says The Alice needs to come up with a brand new story for why people should visit. Some operators are failing to adjust to market needs and may not be offering what today’s tourist wants: “The product hasn’t changed and now is the perfect opportunity to critically look at what is being delivered and renew, refresh and re-invigorate to continue to capture a tourists imagination and dollar,” says Mr Grigg.
“The traveller today is more active, even retirees. “They are fitter, better researched, have more money. “They don’t want to sit on a bus and be shown a destination.
“They want to walk, feel, smell the place, get involved,” says Mr Grigg.
Visitors are well informed about the place even before they come and now they want to be put in touch “with the landscape, the culture, the people themselves”.
Mr Grigg says towns and regions far less known than Alice Springs are taking advantage of opportunities: Outback SA, for example, is having a boom year with Lake Eyre in flood as a magnet, and so is outback NSW with the big rivers flowing, and visitors enjoying the plant and bird life. Visitor numbers to Alice are 8% to 11% down, putting the town into much the same position as other remote centres which are 11% to 15% down. Mr Grigg says the town just can’t win a trick this year. The withdrawal of Tiger Airways came at the beginning of the season. The airline was bringing some 1400 people in and out of town per week.
The high Aussie dollar was a double whammy: international visitors have stayed away in droves and the Aussies have gone overseas for their holidays. As if to add insult to injury, now that the season is over the dollar has dropped sharply – too late for the industry in 2011. Mr Grigg says the industry’s need to adjust must extend to the drive market and the “grey nomads” in their caravans and motor homes – the most significant segment of the industry, although he doesn’t have any figures.
Many vehicles are fully equipped and neither need nor want caravan parks: they overnight at roadside parking spots or in the national parks where they pay $3 or $4 and all wayside stops are set up to cater for what have become long term “tenants”, exactly the opposite for what they were designed to do.
A powered site in caravan parks can cost as much as $38 a night: instead of staying a week they stay a couple of days and “bush camp” the rest of the time.
A powered site isn’t enough these days: visitors need to be enticed to a caravan park by other facilities – pools, playgrounds, entertainment.
“Luckily Alice Springs has a number of caravan parks that value add their product to entice customers into their property,” says Mr Grigg.
Brendan Heenan’s award winning MacDonnell Range Caravan Park is a great example, he says.
Getting useful data about the industry is a nightmare. Tourism NT provides year-by-year figures about spend, numbers and visitor nights, but seems to have no monthly or weekly data. The ABS has comprehensive quarterly statistics going back to 2003 but their problem is that in some years, backpacker hostels and caravan parks are included, in others they are not. This makes comparison difficult, as it is not apples with apples.
Tourism Central Australia generates no figures of its own, which makes a mystery of how it can function as a watchdog over the government’s Tourism NT – annual budget about $40m – and how it can evaluate its own promotions. By contrast, several hotels in Darwin feed their business information – such as revenue and rooms occupied – to STR Global which “tracks supply and demand data for the hotel industry and provides valuable market share analysis for all major international hotel chains and brands,” according to its website.
For a fee the participants can get extensive information, day by day if necessary, about how the industry is performing in a variety of markets, including their own, and get comparisons with earlier periods and indications of trends.
The data include REVPAR (revenue per available room) and ADR (the average rental income per occupied room in a given time period). A similar system, coordinated by Aurora Hotel manager Ron Thynne, was in use in Alice Springs at some time but no longer is. Another vexed question is promotion.
The National Road Transport Hall of Fame is one of Alice Springs’ three “big ones” which attract around 100,000 visitors a year, says Mr Grigg. The others are the Desert Park and the Overland Telegraph Station.
Yet the Hall relies just on a newsletter, its annual reunion and word of mouth for promotion, and runs hardly any paid advertising at all. And with the spread of online direct bookings, TCA’s visitor centre, used by some 120,000 people a year, may need to look for other revenue.
Mr Grigg says his research around the country has revealed that similar centres had to branch out into ventures including selling fuel through discount vouchers, wedding planner services, producing a local phone directory and the provision of local maps.
This week Tourism NT is seeking to get the NT tourism industry to provide timely information on visitation levels and a forward looking business outlook as part of its quarterly industry online poll.