By ERWIN CHLANDA
Part two of a series on Alice’s major industry.
Making the most of the attractions we already have, which is going to be helped by sealing the last 43 kms of the “inner” loop of the West MacDonnells, is a high priority for Tourism Central Australia (TCA).
The industry group is not opposed – without being able to clearly articulate why – to the continuing promotion of the Ayers Rock Resort by the Territory Government’s Tourism NT (TNT).
TCA has 360 members, an annual budget of $1.2m of which 80% comes from TNT.
Acting CEO Stuart Ord, who is holding the fort while Jaclyn Thorne is on maternity leave, says $200,000 to $300,000 is spent by TCA on marketing within the region, targeting tourists who’ve already arrived here, partly as the result of the marketing efforts of Tourism Australia (overseas) and TNT (overseas and in Australia).
Mr Ord says TCA is not a watchdog over Tourism NT, not principally, anyway. He estimates that role to amount to no more than 10% of the function of TCA.
“I would hate to be regarded as a watchdog,” he says.
“It’s not my role to be knocking on [TNT chief] Tony Mayell’s door every second day.”
Mr Ord estimates that happened “probably once or twice since I came here in October”.
Is TCA a lobby for the industry?
“We can be, if necessary. We are independent, as much as we can be.”
For example, TCA has raised with the taxi industry the need for drivers to be better informed about Alice Springs tourism products, says Mr Ord. We are lobbying for them to get a booklet about local attractions they can hand out.
Mr Ord (at left) managed a ski resort owned by the Victorian government for three years, and before that worked for Parks Victoria for 15 years. He is a forester by training.
NEWS: Mr Mayell is looking for the high yielding passenger. Do you agree with that?
ORD: Yes, we do. They stay maybe the same time but they spend more money which then flows back to all the operators. That’s not to say that we can ignore the lower end of the market, the backpackers, 4WD tourists.
NEWS: What are you offering our visitors, what are the top attractions? Please take a broad view – from the star sky to the Royal Flying Doctor base, for instance.
ORD: The quirky events, for example the Beanie Festival, the Henley on Todd, Camel Cup, our National Parks and Nature Reserves, our bush camping experiences, our adventure experiences. Tourists these days are looking for an experience. The Germans, for instance, love adventure. A lot of the marketing by Tourism NT is about adventure.
NEWS: Our report last week showed marketing images used by Tourism NT. Riding pushbikes isn’t all that adventurous.
ORD: Going ballooning, riding a camel or quad biking in the desert – they are adventurous things. Mountain biking is going to grow, maybe more domestically than internationally. We were promoting it in the ski resort, using the assets on the mountain during the summer.
NEWS: The Royal Flying Doctor Service has a fantastic past. I’ve seen them land on the unlit dirt strip at Rabbit Flat in the middle of the night with just the headlights of a car at either end. But that’s in the past. Do you think someone rich will come from Europe to hear a talk about those days in a lecture room?
ORD: I think the answer is yes, because the story is so unique.
NEWS: If you had a 20 seat aircraft that flies out on a mission in company with an RFDS plane, and the tourists witness an evacuation first hand, and then maybe stay on and have a look around the community – I’d call that an experience.
ORD: That’s the top end of the market. That’s expensive.
NEWS: It’s similar to the School of the Air – people in a room are being told something.
ORD: The School of the Air gets 30,000 people a year. It and the RFDS are among our more important tourism products in Alice Springs.
NEWS: Rank them, please, from the top.
ORD: In no particular order, Desert Park, Telegraph Station, Reptile Centre, National Transport Hall of Fame (probably mostly domestic), School of the Air and Olive Pink gardens. We want to recreate the hop-on, hop-off bus [to connect these attractions].
NEWS: Imagine the mailrun is done in a bigger plane. It takes passengers. They stay a night or two on a station. They see the School of the Air from the pupil’s perspective. They might spend a night in a stock camp. I’d call that an experience.
ORD: I think they are great ideas. We can start to have a look at that. You already can stay at Old Ambalindum Homestead where you can go gem fossicking, or 4WD driving, cattle drafting, when it’s on. We are encouraging that. It’s not too far out, you can get there in an hour and a half. But I would caution by saying that tourists generally have a limited amount of time.
NEWS: Germans get six weeks holidays.
ORD: Domestic travellers would be in and out.
NEWS: Isn’t that’s the problem we’ve had for years now? We haven’t pushed the long stay.
ORD: The priority is to get people to stay longer with what we’ve got. The West Macs are equal to anything.
Mr Ord says more could be provided for tourists in town, including better and more access to the hills and ranges. He says the walk from Flynn’s grave to the top of Mt Gillen is popular but not an “official walk” and TCA has been suggesting to get permission from traditional owners to “formalise that trail”.
He says: “That’s an experience but at the moment it’s not encouraged. That’s what we should be doing, work with Parks and Wildlife and the town council, to create or enhance experiences.”
NEWS: What about the couch and buffel along both banks of Trephina Creek in the national park? Would a “high yielding passenger” seeking an “experience” be content with being confronted with introduced plants where she expects a pristine environment? The parks service last year spent just 165 man-hours controlling the infestation, and that was partly to protect assets such as the rangers’ houses. Do you ring the minister and ask her, are you guys for real?
ORD: No, we don’t, because we’re a tourism organisation. The general tourist, rightly or wrongly, would have no idea whether it’s buffel grass or any other grass. It’s grass. So from a tourism point of view it doesn’t make much difference. We are not an environmental agency.
NEWS: On a per capita basis, the budget of Tourism NT, increased from $45m this year to $50m in 2015-16 announced today, is some nine times greater than that of its Queensland counterpart. Should some of that money be spent on creating tourism assets such as roads in national parks?
ORD: Tourism is the second most important industry in the NT. You wouldn’t be able to say that about Queensland. It’s probably number six, seven, eight or nine. Tasmania has pumped a lot of money into tourism. [Completing the seal of the inner West MacDonnells loop] is a start, there are a couple of little access tracks. The access to Ellery Bighole, for example, is a very short gravel road. We’ll lobby government to get that sealed next. The sealing of the loop will put pressure on Parks and Wildlife to formulate a five year plan … toilets, camp sets, paths where need be.
NEWS: Mr Mayell is critical of the industry failing to adequately contribute to the marketing budget. The Queensland figure is about 50-50 but in the NT the ratio is 90-10 or worse. The government doesn’t pay for the advertising of other products, so why should they fund those of your members?
ORD: It’s up to the members to promote their own businesses with the assistance of TCA and other Government Departments.
NEWS: So why aren’t they paying for at least half of the marketing?
ORD: I imagine they haven’t got the money. They are coming from a pretty lean time.
NEWS: The government claims that the industry is recovering. When did this recovery start?
ORD: I don’t have those figures.
NEWS: Do you keep statistics of occupancy?
ORD: No, we don’t. Maybe we should. I am writing a three year strategic plan for TCA. One of the key actions is research. Tourism NT do a lot, they have a terrific research team. We should do our own research so we better understand our members’ requirements.
Mr Ord says the number of people calling at the visitors centre – in its new location – is up 15% on last year but the value of the bookings made by the centre are “about the same as last year, a little bit up” in money terms.
We put to him that’s not a recovery. “The proof will be in the pudding this tourist season,” he says.
Why should the government spend money promoting the Ayers Rock resort? TCA, judging from our conversation with Mr Ord, is clearly in favour of this but the reasoning is unclear.
He says there are “high level attractors” in Australia: Sydney Harbour bridge, Great Barrier Reef and Ayers Rock. The Rock gets people into the NT.
“It’s cheaper to get to Ayers Rock Resort than it is to get to Alice Springs,” he says.
From there “dispersal” needs to happen.
Is it happening? Mr Mayell defined it as 50% of people going to The Rock come to Alice Springs as well. Mr Ord agrees.
How much do these people spend in Alice Springs, and how long do they stay here?
Neither is known with certainty.
What benefit does Alice Springs get from the Ayers Rock Resort?
“I probably won’t be able to help you with that, no more so than Tony [Mayell].”
Is TCA happy with Ayers Rock Resort getting the same attention from TNT as Alice Springs, the same spend?
“That’s a TNT decision.”
PHOTOS: top – Ellery Bighole; above – camel trek. From TNT marketing material.
Tourism recovery? The proof will be in this year's pudding.
By ERWIN CHLANDA