The magnificent West MacDonnells: Central Australia’s beauty spots, how do we get there and what should it cost?
By ERWIN CHLANDA
We are right and our paying customer is wrong: is that, judging from the reaction to issues we raised last week relating to a tour company, the bizarre business model of our tourist industry?
Although it is the potentially the biggest private enterprise industry, the industry has been incapable of halting its long and steep decline, despite operating in one of the world’s most magnificent regions, and getting promotion into which the taxpayer pours $40m a year (Territory-wide).
To put this into perspective: Tourism NT gets $174 a year per head of population. The corresponding figure for Queensland is about $15.
Jaclyn Thorne, General Manager of Tourism Central Australia (TCA), through which Jeff Burden and his partner had booked, was focussing on shooting the messenger, threatening the Alice Springs News Online with legal action without even picking up the phone.
There was no hint in her reply of what her industry body would be doing about a repeat visitor (until now?) from overseas leaving thoroughly disenchanted.
Meanwhile Wayoutback’s Deborah Rock stated “our tourism industry does not need Jeff Burden to resuscitate our industry” and demanded we pull the story.
Other tourism figures also poured scorn on Mr Burden – see readers’ comments at the bottom of the original report. None of the three writers, all claiming to be working in the tourist industry, provided their full names.
“Simon” claims Mr Burden wanted a “free trip to the rock” (nowhere was that stated), and he wanted to pay “backpacker prices and receive 5 star treatment”.
In fact Mr Burden took the view it was the other way ’round.
“Steve” asserted that I am “either A) out of touch with reality or B) friends with this gentleman”. A: I have never met Mr Burden face to face and had no knowledge of him before doing this story; and B: I’ve covered tourism in Central Australia as a full-time journalist, resident in Alice, since 1974. “Steve” can find hundreds of my tourism stories in the Centralian Advocate and the Alice Springs News, not to mention numerous reports and features for television networks in Australia and overseas.
“Steve” and Ms Rock are pointing to the hard work being done by tour guides: Ms Rock says “when the group got up at 5, the guide would have already been up for ages”.
This suggests the guide would have a working day of some 16 to 17 hours by the time she clocked off that night, and this included a lot of driving. (Fatigue management here is industry-regulated.) “Steve” suggests if the passengers didn’t give a hand, companies “would have to run two staff per bus”.
That may not be such a bad idea: Mr Burden’s bus had 20 passengers. Ms Rock says “a couple” had been upgraded, paying just $395 each, that’s $790.
Consequently it is reasonable to assume the remaining 18 paid $695 each, that’s $12,510, a total of $13,300 for three days. Would there be slack for a second guide and driver?
“Nick” suggests that the issues raised in our report “logically [belong] on a tour review website. I can’t see how this can even loosely be considered as news”.
We are happy to inform “Nick” that consumer affairs issues are very properly concerns for our newspaper (and all news media), especially when they relate to the town’s main private enterprise industry.
This is how this saga unfolded: Mr Burden is a friend of Rod Moss, a resident of Alice Springs for several decades, a former teacher, acclaimed painter and in 2011 the winner of the Prime Minister’s award for non-fiction. Mr Moss, who had witnessed more than one negotiation between Mr Burden, Wayoutback and TCA, told us about Mr Burden’s experiences. Mr Moss is a friend.
We googled Mr Burden’s background and found several entries about his work at an American university.
He and his partner had left for Singapore and we exchanged emails to arrange an interview. I spoke with him on Skype for 26 minutes on Wednesday last week, recording the conversation (with his permission, of course). The interview formed the basis of the report.
The next phase of our information gathering was to seek responses from TCA and Wayoutback and offer them the right of reply.
In this we usually go well beyond what most other journalists do, namely we send story drafts – to the point reached by our research at the time – so that the people we are dealing with are aware not only of the content, but also the context.
We make it clear that this is not an invitation to censor, but to point out any errors and omissions.
We incorporated relevant sections of the responses from TCA and Wayoutback to the story.