Alice tourism: slow recovery while Rock booms


p2228-Macs-Serpentine-1The new CEO of Tourism Central Australia (TCA), Stephen Schwer, has a solid background running regional tourism associations, with the Great Barrier Reef, Flinders Ranges in South Australia and part of the east coast on his CV.
His appointment three months ago coincides with the election as president of Dale McIver, who has an outstanding long-time record as fixer around town.
Mr Schwer, married with two young children, is taking over the 319 member organisation as there are signs in town of the industry pulling out of a prolonged slump.
He spoke with editor ERWIN CHLANDA.
NEWS: In 2014/15 Alice Springs accommodation houses had 506,000 “guest nights occupied” earning $36m. The Lasseter region – that’s mostly the Ayers Rock Resort, just one operator – had 454,000 earning $51m, according to ABS. What’s Alice Springs doing wrong?
SCHWER: People are looking for an experience these days. People want to learn from the destination, not just treat it as a series of photos but as connections they have made. When looking at the income derived directly from tourism expenditure in Alice Springs versus Lasseter, in the year ending December 2015 Alice Springs received $244m whereas Lasseter received $158m in domestic overnight visitation income. For the same period, Alice Springs received $62m in international overnight visitation income, and Lasseter received $184m. Your point remains valid of course, because Lasseter receives marginally more in visitor income overall than Alice Springs. Whilst Alice Springs gets more domestic visitation, Lasseter gets more international visitation which tends to be higher yield.
NEWS: Surely Alice Springs and the MacDonnell Ranges have more opportunities for learning and making connections than the Rock and the Olgas.
SCHWER: To Voyages’ credit, they make use of a site that is on the bucket list of a lot of people. It is a very spiritual place to be. A sunrise at Uluru and Kata Tjuta is an experience money can’t buy. It’s a once in a lifetime thing. That’s being sold really well. What Alice Springs has going for it are its events and festivals, that outback element, quirky fun, the Henley on Todd, the Beanie Festival – one of a kind types of events. You add in there Tennant Creek and the Barkly area, quite an amazing, beautiful area, yet they have even fewer visitors than Alice Springs and Uluru. We need to use the hooks of the destination, the beauty of the MacDonnells and Karlu Karlu (Devil’s Marbles). Some of the views you have from Anzac Hill at sunset or sunrise are just out of this world. It’s a matter of using those inspirational hooks to get people here and then it’s a matter of holding them here longer.
NEWS: So why is so much more visitors’ money flowing to the Ayers Rock Resort?
SCHWER: It’s easier to spend money there. The easier you make it for people to purchase your product the more people will purchase it.
NEWS: How can we do that better?
SCHWER: We could do better working with Ayers Rock Resort to disperse visitors more. At TCA we are looking at the visitor touch points. Do we have the right advertising in the places where visitors are finding their information? We can encourage even more drive travel. They tend to not have just one destination. We need to slow people down. Packaging experiences together is a really important strategy. Forward promotion, at the inspiration stage, can come from our social media, our website. Then we need to make sure the booking chain is clean, simple and easy to do.
NEWS: Why should we spend taxpayers’ money to promote the interstate-owned Ayers Rock Resort? What do we get out of it?
SCHWER: It’s a massive export earner, not just for the region but for the country. TCA’s region is the Red Centre, from the SA border to Newcastle Waters, including the Ayers Rock Resort, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek. We promote the whole region.
NEWS: The vast majority of operators in that region, hundreds of TCA members, are in Alice Springs and only 10 in Ayers Rock Resort. What does that majority get out of spending promotion money on the resort?
SCHWER: Employment is a big one. Locals here have the opportunity to work there as anyone else does. We have about 30 members there. The resort has a very good program for employing people from surrounding communities.
[The Alice Springs News Online has reported on that scheme, the low participation in it and problems encountered.]
NEWS: How many people working at the Rock come from interstate and repatriate their money?
SCHWER: You have to ask Voyages for a break-down. We don’t know how many people other operators employ.
p2002ellerybighole1NEWS: Wouldn’t that be an important piece of information for an industry lobby to formulate its strategies?
SCHWER: You need to speak to Voyages. I don’t know the answer, just as I don’t know their financials.
NEWS: Voyages are not forthcoming with information. For example, last time we asked them where they buy their supplies they said about half-half from Alice Springs and interstate. When we asked whether that is in money terms we didn’t get an answer. Yet the sole accommodation operator at the Rock makes 42% more money than all the ones in Alice Springs combined. Do you would know how much promotion money is being spent for Voyages?
SCHWER: No. It happens at various levels. They have their own promotions department, then there’s Tourism Australia, Tourism Northern Territory [TNT, the NT Government’s tourism instrumentality] and TCA.
NEWS: What are the respective amounts the NT Government’s TNT is spending on promoting Alice Springs and surroundings compared with Ayers Rock Resort?
SCHWER: That would be a question for TNT.
NEWS: TCA is the watchdog over TNT, isn’t it? You are the lobby for the industry. What do you say to the NT Government about the money it spends to promote Ayers Rock Resort which is seen as getting a disproportionate and unreasonable share?
SCHWER: That perception may be out there. I must admit you are one of the first people to mention it to me. I certainly don’t hear that from industry. In fact industry are very happy for all the promotions, whether they be Tennant Creek, Barkly, Alice Springs area, Uluru, wherever it happens to be, because it’s promotion of the region. If that perception is out there it is disappointing because people are not quite understanding how you need to inspire a consumer to travel. In our promotion we will always use these inspirational places as hooks and then we seek to disperse people once they are here.
NEWS: The sealing of the inner loop will no doubt have a part in this.
SCHWER: Yes definitely. That, and other touring routes like the Outback Way, the Binns Track and others that slow people down as they travel through the region, meaning they are more likely to stay longer and therefore spend more.
NEWS: What can Alice Springs do to become more tourism friendly? There is the empty mall, for example.
SCHWER: I wouldn’t say that the mall is empty.
NEWS: Then you haven’t been there after 6pm, even on a balmy night.
SCHWER: Alice Springs is very attractive to tourists as it is, but we can do better, such as packaging more, and training staff in customer service. It’s also about encouraging frontline staff to forward recommend other businesses. Find out where people are going next and say, oh, you’re here for a few days, make sure you see – whatever it is. That way we stretch out their stay in the area for a bit longer.
NEWS: The Barrier Reef is doomed by climate change. So say eminent environmentalists, including Tim Flannery. Soon nature tourism worth $6.4b a year will be looking for somewhere to go. Are we putting up our hand for that?
p2321-Stephen-SchwerSCHWER (pictured): Most definitely. I’m on an advisory panel with Eco Tourism Australia which is working on a nature-based national tourism strategy. From an operator standpoint, one of the big things all of us need to do is to go through environmental accreditation programs: What kind of things need to be monitored, how we can reduce emissions, work in harmony with the environment. Social sustainability comes into it as well, how can we contribute to good social outcomes.
NEWS: If we become the focus for nature tourism there will be an enormously greater number of people.
SCHWER: Tourism can be both an impact on and a benefit for the environment. You have to develop your environmental and social sustainability plans. Learn how to tread lightly. Develop a buy local policy. Some businesses put aside land for wildlife areas. Working with traditional owners is something I am new to but I’m enjoying getting involved.
NEWS: At times what we call adventure tourism isn’t very adventurous: A 40 seater bus pulls up at Ellery Bighole, the most beautiful waterhole in the country, keeps the engine running so the air conditioner stays on, passengers nick down to the waterhole for a quick photo and off they go again.
SCHWER: Some operators do that. Certainly back in the ’80s that was the predominant part of the industry. Now you’re finding a lot more experience-based operators, smaller groups, more educational.  Interpretation by the tour guide is there not just to inform on history and interesting titbits but also to help understand how the land and environment can be protected.
NEWS: What about access to the beauty spots. We seem to have quite regimented areas which don’t match the wide open spaces myth. What about sleeping in a creek bed, cooking on a campfire, looking at the stars, have a beer or two?
SCHWER: We have the wide open places. We also have areas that have been site hardened for tourists to reduce their impact on the environment. There’s a lot of science now behind building trails for walking and cycling. If they are improperly built people will go bush bashing from them. If they are built well, people will be able to access sensitive areas without impacting the environment.
NEWS: A question we’ve been asking for four decades: Is TCA a watchdog over government performance in tourism or not? Are you a lobby and are you telling governments what you want them to do?
SCHWER: This is the third regional or local tourism association that I have run and I have never seen myself as watchdog, like an ICAC. I’ve certainly seen myself as working with any organisations that will work with us. I believe in collaborating and building relationships, working together honestly, openly, transparently. I don’t think we get anywhere by bashing people over the head. I shy away from the term watchdog because it has a little bit too much of baseball bat about it. But I certainly believe when there is an outcome that isn’t favourable to our members that I need to go in and advocate a lot more strongly. I see our organisation as needing to be assertive at times.
PHOTOS from top: Some of our treasures – Serpentine Gorge, Ellery Bighole and Gosses Bluff, all in the West MacDonnell Ranges. By Alice Springs News Online.


  1. Regarding the reference of the Alice Springs News Online to the Great Barrier Reef being “doomed”, I have been amazed by the complete acceptance of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming, now known as “climate change”.
    As a producer for ABC radio in Sydney during the 1980s, I interviewed the late Dr Grote Reber at his radio astronomy installation in Tasmania and one of the memorable things he said about sun storms affecting the weather was that scientists had only been collecting data since the 1960s and that was too short a time to determine a pattern.
    Koinonia House, a Christian-based organisation with natural science PhD contributors in what can be considered a balanced report (4/4/16) notes: “Extreme weather events are very difficult to link to climate change, and it is unclear how climate change may impact those weather events. This view is in the literature, but it does not make it into the front page of the press.
    “The year 2015 was the hottest year since the late 1800s. The question is, ‘What caused that to happen?’ One explanation was a big El Niño phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, one of many weather spikes that will continue for about a year. There was a strong El Niño warm spike besides a slowly warming climate. When these events are combined, one will get a record temperature. This is what weather scientists would expect to occur.
    “Even given the argument humans are causing the climate to change does not mean man is causing the climate to change in a particularly bad way, nor that there is something that needs to be done about it immediately to halt the trend … climate change is just another part of how humans are interacting and impacting their environment, but it doesn’t mean mankind needs to immediately do something about it, especially if the remedies put in place are possibly worse than the climate change ‘problem’.”

  2. Russell, I’m not sure I would look to Koinonia House for “balanced” reporting on climate change.
    KH has published other papers on climate change as well, along the lines of it being a conspiracy seeking a new world order. Pretty balanced.
    However if I was an evangelical Christian interested in researching aliens contacting us through cosmic codes hidden in the Torah, KH would be high on my list.

  3. What a good idea Russel: an organised tour between Devil’s Marbles, Wycliffe Well alien magnet, 380km north of Alice Springs and Pine Gap secret facility investigating UFOs and aliens. SHHHH! IT’S A SECRET!

  4. Ian, I agree that Koinonia House shouldn’t be considered as a balanced contributor to the climate change debate, however, Russell’s point about our accurate temperature records is an interesting one.
    If we accept that the homo genus has existed for at least 2.8 million years and we are using 150 years of “accurate” temperature data (at an absolute stretch), then the sample size of the data as a percentage of our species history is a ridiculously small 0.00536%, even smaller if we consider the total time life has existed on earth.
    Certainly a sample of this size would be seen as inconsequentially small in any other form of scientific analysis. I know we have no other way of determining otherwise, and I understand that it may be best to err on the side of caution, but I am amazed at the absoluteness of conclusions on this issue claimed by many scientists.

  5. Wooooo … I just get back from time exiled on another planet to read God’s gospel on the sensational lack of tourism $$$$ to the Alice. So what’s the drama? Well, as one would expect after time in exile, the world is in deep shit.
    I am astonished to find a new age evangelist plucks one word out of the gospel and whacks it with the biggest load of hyperbole imaginable. Of course as with all new age evangelical prophets, spin is your mantra!
    For those old enough to remember, the last evangelical age sold powerful messages too. So scary in fact that if you didn’t repent your sins and give your soul to Jesus you sure as Hell, were going to Hell. “Jesus is Coming” the prophets cried! You can read all the facts in the big book they said. It’s true the end of the world is nigh.
    Well history sure does repeat, Jesus never came, so our eternal intelligence turns to the only source that can save us: Planet Earth. But Mother Earth is very sick, the prophets tell us so. They have more scientific data than the big book ever had so it must be true.
    Repent all your evil carbon sins now and save Mother Earth and save your soul, or we will all be DOOMED.

  6. @ Daniel Davis: Does this comment mean that we can again expect no climate and/or clean energy policy from the CLP in the lead up to the election?
    Given the catastophic risks associated with messing up the chemisty of our atmosphere, wouldn’t it be safer to enact the precautionary principle which puts the burden of proof on those seeking to profit from the risk rather than the other way around?
    Climate change is already making itself felt in the NT and across the world. What policies can we expect from our elected representatives to protect people, property and industry from this existential threat? Fracking shale gas is no answer.

  7. Some of the misguided views in the below comments are cause for serious concern. Beyond the proven trend of climate warming, there is the simple fact that humanity’s current trajectory is unsustainable for the planet.
    There can be no denying that we are currently destroying the earth’s ecosystems at an alarming rate and burning through non renewable resources.
    It appears that those below citing 150 years of weather records have never heard of a little thing called ice core samples. Google it.
    The link between carbon dioxide and warming is undeniable. I thought the dinosaurs had all died out – apparently not, they have taken up residence in this comment board.

  8. Yes, Russel, from the sublime to the ridiculous, said Fontenelle, French author and an influential member of three of the academies of the Institut de France, it is only one step. From raillery to insult there is even less.

  9. Daniel, to state, as you do, “the sample size of the data as a percentage of our species history is a ridiculously small 0.00536%, even smaller if we consider the total time life has existed on earth” is disingenuous. In reality it covers most if not all of the relevant critical period.
    There are three great stages in our species’ relationship with the environment: The immensely long stone age when we lived as hunter-gathers, followed by the agricultural revolution taking off about 10,000 years ago, and finally the industrial revolution beginning just 250 years ago, not getting into full swing until the 1800s.
    This last is the age of massive burning of fossil fuels, firstly coal, then also oil and gas. It is this last couple of centuries of industrialization coupled with the associated huge developments in scientific knowledge that has drastically lowered the crude death rate and led to the massive explosion in our populations as well as our vastly increased affluence on the one hand, but to devastating environmental damage on the other.
    It caused reduced biodiversity, desertification, pollution of our waters and our atmosphere. If we are to pick a just one small slice of our species time on the planet to focus on as you suggest we have done, then the last couple of centuries is clearly the best choice.
    And as Joel points out, we have other ways of assessing atmospheric and climate changes than just temperature records in the sense that you and Russell have used the term.

  10. @ Joel: “Misguided”, Joel? Will the catastrophic death of the dinosaurs be found in the ice cores? Will Strikey be exiled to another planet?
    My post re the KH reference was edited and shortened several paragraphs by the Editor.
    Have either of you checked for its philosophical guidance? Or are you both just trying to push your own barrow at the expense of reasonable debate?
    One of the guiding values of the Enlightenment philosophies was reason. Martin Luther referred to it in somewhat scathing terms. Another value was tolerance.
    Sunspot activity is a factor in localised warming, but as KH report, it is not certain how these events cause the “global” alarm which many have seized on.
    The French have given us much great literature, Evelyne. Tolstoy was far from being a hack as well.

  11. We have ice core samples going back 800,000 odd years. Not a suitable metric for looking at dinosaurs. Unless of course you are of the view that earth is only 5000 or so years old. This view would be entirely in line with the absurd KH belief system.
    Religion and prophecy has no place for reasonable debate. They exist in absolutes, immune from humanities growing knowledge base and scientific advancement.

  12. Thanks for this article Erwin, this is an vitally important issue for the town and I wish people would take it seriously.
    You put forward some really good questions that weren’t really answered but need to be. Especially around Voyages and its profits/funding and benefit to the region.
    The long-established tourism industry of Alice Springs has basically been decimated by the Rock in recent years. The flow-on to peripheral small businesses is glaringly obvious when you see all the empty shopfronts in town.
    All the self-congratulations and social media campaigns in the world aren’t going to change anything if the financial capital and people with know-how have withdrawn from the town because they can see the writing on the wall.

  13. @ Joel Olzomer, Posted April 9, 2016 at 10:36 am. A society that sees only scientific knowledge as the basis for advancement has precedents within the last century, both in Australia with the eugenicists who raided the Dreaming and in Europe with Nazism.
    The sentiments, wisdom and cultural attributes of religious thought over the millennia has contributed to art, literature, film, theatre, sculpture, music and more to this day.
    If your belief system does not value these things and above all, human beings as more than the sum of their parts, then I’m afraid for the kind of future that you might bring to power.
    The reason why I mentioned Leo Tolstoy, a Christian, in my last post is because his book “I Cannot Remain Silent” was written as a criticism of cultural Marxism.

  14. It’s not surprising that tourists are not coming here.
    Firstly it’s too expensive. The facilities at venues such as Standley Chasm, Telegraph Station etc all need money spent on them and be upgraded.
    The eating establishments around town need to lift their game as the food leaves to be desired.
    The new tourist information centre in the mall is in the wrong place. It needs to be where parking is.
    The MacDonnell Ranges are nothing compared to the the Flinders Rangers and the Olgas and the Rock.
    They are awesome and inspiring.
    To sum it up, there are better places, value for money, elsewhere in Australia.
    After all overseas people only want to see the “Rock”. The new mall is an eyesore. We need to nurture the history of this town and build upon it.

  15. @ Fred the Philistine: Is it not the upgrading of every historic venue which has killed the Spirit of Alice Springs?
    Nearly all tourist attractions have clothing, books, music etc to the expenses of the town shops but have lost what was the real atmosphere of Alice.
    No more Bojangles, no more didgeridoo workshop to name a few.
    The MacDonnell Ranges East and West are magnificent (have you climbed Serpentine? Done the Larapinta trail?
    And between you and me, the tourists do not know the Olgas and the Rock (which is not a rock) but as Kata Tjuta and Uluru.

  16. OK, Evelyne Roullet (Posted April 27, 2016 at 10:09 am). You have got me curious. If Uluru “is not a rock”, what is it?

  17. @ Bob Durban: Uluru is part of a much larger underground rock formation which includes Kata Tjuta.
    Uluru is an inselberg, literally “island mountain”, an isolated remnant left after the slow erosion of an original mountain range.
    The creation of Uluru and Kata Tjuta – as both were formed at the same time – began over 500 million years ago.
    At this time the big crustal blocks that form the Australian continent coming together. A block called the Musgrave Province pushed up from the south creating mountains – the Petermann Ranges — in an event called the Petermann Orogeny (an orogeny is a mountain-building event.)
    When they first formed, the Petermann Ranges were a high mountain range more like the Alps or the Himalayas.
    “Today, we can only see the ‘nubs’ or ‘roots’ of this once mighty range,” says Dr Marita Bradshaw, a geologist with Geosciences Australia.


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