By ERWIN CHLANDA
UPDATED to include a response from the tour company. See below.
What Alice Springs needs to resuscitate its tourism industry is people like Jeff Burden, an academic at an American university. He is a friend of local artist Rod Moss, has just been on his fourth visit to The Centre and loves it.
This time he came with a Singaporean friend, Kathie Soon, on her first visit to The Centre and here to see Aboriginal art. He invited her to join him on a commercial camping tour to The Rock and King’s Canyon, very similar to one he had been on previously.
“I come to Australia every once in a while, and I recommend things to people,” says Mr Burden.
After a three day, two nights (in the swag) trip to The Rock and King’s Canyon, one operator that will certainly miss out on Mr Burden’s tick is Wayoutback tours.
The reasons for this would seem to call for far greater oversight of standards in the industry, and for answers why such a seemingly inadequate product is sold by Tourism Central Australia from its new Todd Mall premises, co-located with Tourism NT.
The tour didn’t start off well: Mr Burden says he was told that only the expensive tours ($695 per person) were available – nearly double the normal price.
On a previous visit he had made an identical trip, with another company. He says he asked an employee in the Tourism Central Australia information centre: “What makes [the trip costing double] special?
“And he said, well, ‘nicer everything’.” Not so, as the couple soon found out. (Tourism Central Australia denies that this statement was made by its staff.)
The pick-up was scheduled for 6am next morning, but was half an hour late.
At the lunch stop on the way to Uluru, he says the 20-odd passengers were told by the driver and guide to make their own sandwiches. “Fine, I guess,” was Mr Burden’s response.
Then he says they were told to clean the dishes while the woman guide “did not do very much”.
At the Ayers Rock sunset the driver set up a card table, set out cheap wine and crackers and left for a jog.
“Everybody else’s set-up [at the sunset viewing area] was much nicer than ours,” recalls Mr Burden.
He also found the dinner that followed, pasta and chicken, “not very good”.
The demeanour of the guide was “a little brusque, you do this or you don’t get that, if you don’t do the dishes I won’t make hot chocolate for you, it was that kind of attitude,” says Mr Burden.
Next morning the group was told to get up at 5am for the sunrise when the tour guide went off “on another exercise and just left us to stand there, from six o’clock till the sun came up which was an hour later. So there is a couple of hours that she’s just gone off and leaving everybody to do whatever”.
Lunch was at the Olgas: “She once again says she has somewhere to go, and she gives us hamburgers and hotdogs to cook. Luckily we had some grill experts on the trip.
“We were supposed to cook it and then clean it. It was also surprising. Luckily we had someone who knew how to clean the grill with the big power washer. [The guide] was gone for the whole time during the lunch.”
The second night was at King’s Canyon, the guide announcing – with enthusiasm, says Mr Burden – that there would be bush showers and toilets. By the time the group got there only 45 minutes were available for all to take a shower: “With many women on the trip there was only one shower. And it gets dark before most of us can take a shower.
“There is the same trouble with the toilet. There is only one and within an hour the toilet is broken. No door on the toilet. Not only that but the toilet is totally broken.
“You got to go literally in the bush.”
Time to get up at 5am again, “wondering why”.
King’s Canyon is misrepresented – says Mr Burden – by the guide as a hard walk and some people stay behind.
For lunch “we have to do the sandwich thing again, and she takes off again” while nearby is another tour group, also from Wayoutback, whose guide is cooking for his passengers, and is there the whole time.
For Mr Burden’s group this was followed by “three hours of inactivity”.
Arriving back in Alice the passengers are anxious to get back to their hotel. After the first drop-off the guide runs out of fuel and she makes a joke of it. Fuel is brought but there is air in the fuel line. “In the meantime we are standing outside, waiting.”
This is followed by several visits to the Wayoutback office, with Mr Burden and Ms Soon seeking a partial refund of their fare.
This is how Mr Burden recounts what they were told by someone who is apparently in charge: “We feel like things were not so good, but it wasn’t really our fault, the driver broke up with her boyfriend, she’s really had a rough time.”
You shouldn’t send her out if she is emotionally detached form her job, Mr Burden says he responded. What is the reason for the high price?
He is told “the pasta is better, the condiments are better.
“I’m thinking, for $300 [above the standard price] there should be a bit more for my big price. We paid $1400 and got a pretty chancy trip.
“Some people had paid the lower price but were upgraded because there were seats available. There were people sitting next to us who were paying $395 while we were paying the $695.”
Wayoutback did not give a refund, partial or otherwise. The compensation offered (and declined) were two bottles of cheap wine “they buy by the crate and that cost them like six bucks”.
Mr Burden noticed what a European couple, also on the bus, wrote on the company’s questionnaire about the trip: they were “disappointed”.
PHOTOS (with Mr Burden’s comments): Top – “Group cooking – guide gone during the whole time. Boot camp like atmosphere.” Centre at The Rock sunset area – “Beautiful but lousy service – rickety card table for $695 tour and the guide was gone on 5km run the whole time.” Bottom – Bush dunny as depicted on the Wayoutback website.
The Alice Springs News Online offered the right of reply to Wayoutback and Tourism Central Australia at 12.14pm yesterday.
Tourism Central Australia provided this response at 9:09am today:
“As a membership based organisation Tourism Central Australia provides visitors assistance with travel bookings and advice at the Alice Springs Visitor Information Centre on behalf of our members. We charge a flat commission rate for all bookings and can confirm there are no special arrangements with Wayoutback or any members to incentivise or influence bookings.
“Staff are trained in selling all kinds of experiences, with varying price points, target audiences and often customer’s choices are left to availability. In the case that is mentioned below, our staff took the customers through a range of options which were limited due to the date of travel and left it to them to make the final decision. On returning from their trip, staff also spent in excess of two hours speaking with the visitors and noting their feedback which is outlined in your report.”
Tourism CA’s response did not refer to any action it may have taken in response to the feedback from Mr Burden and Ms Soon.
Deborah Rock, of Wayoutback, provided the following response at 2:14pm today:
This is not a swag based tour. Passengers have permanent tents, with beds.
What does Mr Burden base his “normal price” comment on? This is the normal tour and the normal price for it. One can only presume he is comparing to backpacker products. This is a case of comparing apples with oranges. You have failed to note that the last tour he did was 10 years ago. Prices have gone up in the meantime.
The main misunderstanding seems to come from this point: The 3 day tour which Prof. Burden selected is far superior to our 3 day backpacker / budget tour. But Mr Burden has presumed it would be also superior to the tour he did 10 years ago. On what basis is he presuming that? Because prices have gone up in the last 10 years?
He doesn’t recall what tour he did last time, but we know which companies were operating back then, we’d say that realistically our tour would be offering a similar standard and catering to a similar market.
We pride ourselves on running great camping safaris and that customer satisfaction is very high. But from the moment he joined the tour, Mr Burden’s expectations were out of alignment with what our tour is really about.
Pick-up: Our understanding is that the driver left the depot on time. It is unfortunate, but pick up times can be significantly affected by passengers at earlier stops not being ready on time. This problem would be familiar to every company.
Lunch: On our website and in our brochure it is clearly indicated that this tour involves group participation. The guides work extremely hard, but not all of what they are doing is visible to the passengers.
Ayers Rock sunset: Our sunset viewing service on this tour includes sparkling white wine, houmus, fetta cheese and water crackers. It is a nice set up. He has not said who he is comparing our service to, but this complaint hints again that he had expectations of this trip that were unfair given the tour product he had purchased. Feedback on our meals is normally excellent. Customer feedback for meals on this specific trip is divided, of the 19 customer feedback forms we received, 12 people rated the meals as excellent or good. There is only 1 person who indicated “poor” which we believe may be Mr Burden or his partner.
The demeanour of the guide: Depending on people’s mood, what one person sees as cheeky humour is interpreted by another as “brusque”. His comment is inappropriately subjective. Majority of feedback on the guide for this trip was excellent.
Watching sunset and sunrise is a key activity of any trip to Uluru and what most people expect to be able to do. What he has missed is that when the group got up at 5, the guide would have already been up for ages, she would have had the fire lit and had everything set up for breakfast. She would have then got them out to the sunrise viewing point in time to watch sunrise. Sunrise viewing is a quiet time, and can be a good moment for guides to zip off to organise something behind the scenes or take a few moments for themselves. It is unfair that he attacks her for this.
Lunch at the Olgas: The guide has passengers leaving the tour on the 2nd day. She had to drop other passengers off at the airport and wanted to so in a way that was the least disruptive to the passengers staying on – so she did so while they were having lunch, rather than have it interrupt sightseeing time later.
King’s Canyon: We use a campsite well away from the crowds, very private for our group. When guests realise where they are, they are pleased at the extra luxury of a hot shower being available. Passengers expecting a “shower block” misunderstand that this tour is all about getting off the beaten track.
[The toilet] was fine on arrival but broke while the group was there. Camping in remote locations, unexpected things happen. Our maintenance team was in the area all that month; it would have been fixed quickly. [The toilet] is deliberately positioned to take advantage of a spectacular view (thus no door). It is approached from behind, so anyone using it has complete privacy, group members know to call out on approach.
Our crockery, cutlery and utensils are put through the dishwasher after every tour. During the tour, everyone takes part in keeping them clean.
King’s Canyon walk: Duty of care requires guides to inform passengers where a walk might be challenging and offer alternatives for those who don’t feel up to it.
Three hours of inactivity: From what I understand, the guide went to refuel the vehicle. [Mr Burden presumably refers] to the drive back to Alice Springs from Kings Canyon.
The guide did have enough fuel but thought she had run out and told the passengers that. [In fact] some dirt in the bottom of the fuel tank had been sucked up into the line and caused a blockage.
Emotionally detached: This is private information. It is also based on incorrect information I had been given. [ED – We did not name the guide.]
Variations in price: It is no different to an airline choosing to upgrade a couple of passengers from economy to business class because of seat numbers.
The wine, which we consider very palatable, was offered in good faith to apologise for the inconvenience.
We’re sorry Mr Burden did not enjoy his tour, his experience is not that of most of our clients, including others who were on the same trip as him. It is also not an opinion shared by organisations that continue to award us for the quality of our services.