By JULIUS DENNIS
Educational tour operators say that there are not enough places to stay the night in Alice Springs to meet the “huge influx” of school groups around the June-July and September school holidays.
And tour operators are “slipping through the cracks” of the NT Government’s $16.2m tourism voucher scheme, says Danial Rochford, the CEO of Tourism Central Australia.
Richard ‘Reg’ Ramsden, owner of Remote Tours which operates out of The Alice, says: “The main problem is the two caravan parks that shut down and were turned into housing estates.”
Mr Ramsden is referring to the Red Centre Resort and the Heavitree Gap caravan parks.
Previously, these two parks could accommodate at least 10 coaches per night and were open to squeezing a few more in where they could.
“Nobody’s thought about, ‘we’ve taken away twenty bus bays and we’ve never put anything back,’” says Mr Ramsden.
The lack of spots to stay during the holiday periods is worsened by the fact that many of the parks in and around Alice are “usually too busy with self-drivers or family groups. They don’t have a bus bay or that type of set up”.
This leaves the MacDonnell Range Caravan Park, which can fit seven coaches a night, and a few lesser suited parks around town to bear the brunt of the rushes.
When there is nowhere to spend the night in town, tours often head to Ross River or Glen Helen Gorge, taking their business away from Alice Springs.
Geoff Vickers, CEO of Bayside Coaches, a company which usually brings around 40 tours of 40 to 50 visitors, most of whom are students, through Alice annually also laments the closure of the two parks.
“Mac Range is a great facility, but at times is just smashed and overrun trying to do the right thing and fit in all the groups,” says Mr Vickers.
Mr Ramsden says that it is affecting his business’s ability to take on more tours after a quiet 2020.
“It’s affecting my business. I can take on groups who don’t want to go to Alice Springs, but they all want to come to Alice Springs.”
Tourism Central Australia has circled educational tourism as something of a saviour for the industry, as well as a central building block for the industry into the future. For that to happen, Mr Ramsden says infrastructure needs to be put in place.
“We can’t wait until the eleventh hour for things to happen. We need to make sure that we can cater for these school groups that want to come and utilise the museums and stuff.
“Maybe the bus tours from down south died down for a while but they are gonna pick up big time if we are allowed to bring people into the Territory.”
Mr Vickers agrees, especially in light of private schools and universities being unable to travel overseas for the foreseeable future.
“In theory, this [Central Australia] could be a great alternative.”
Mr Rochford says TCA has been “advocating for the past few months with government on this issue.
“At the end of the day there are sites around Alice Springs that could be repurposed to support this market, and if there are avenues to do that then TCA would warmly welcome that.
“In the next 10 years, we want to own educational tourism in Australia.
“We want to see the backbone of our tourism industry being educational tourism.”
Also at the forefront of the CTA agenda is finding a way to support tour operators who have not seen any flow-on effects of the government’s tourism voucher scheme which offers up to $200 off trips at least 400 kilometres from your home.
“The tourism vouchers have not been at all beneficial for our tour operators for the simple reason that most Territorians are using their own vehicles.
“We have said to government since day one that this is the case,” says Mr Rochford.
Mr Ramsden says: “They were never designed to help tour bus companies.”
Mr Ramsden, with the help of his friend Ray Rowe, submitted an additional plan that would help educational tour operators, to local industry players prior to the 2020 Territory election.
The plan, which was estimated to cost roughly $1.47m, was for travel “vouchers [to be] issued to every Grade 6 (or Grade 7, 8, 9) student in Alice Springs for an all-inclusive, fully supervised three-day tour to the Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park.
The vouchers — similar to back to school and sports vouchers already in use in the Territory — were costed at $360 and would have been “no burden on parents, either financial, in time, or organisational.
“It inspires and promotes wonder in our young, future citizens, and promotes harmony and understanding in the people and attractions of the region in which they live.”
For remote and regional students trips to Alice Springs could visit the School of the Air, RFDS, The Reptile Centre, Earth Sanctuary, Araluen Arts Centre, Megafauna Central and Art Galleries – a magical experience for these kids to experience what opportunities are available if they continue their education.
The plan also points out that both the itinerary and infrastructure are already in place, in Alice Springs, and could be replicated for other regions around the Territory.
The proposed plan, however pragmatic, has received little recognition.
PHOTOS: Facebook, School of the Air, a must-see in an educational tour of Alice Springs.
Last updated 21 January 2021, 3.22pm.
UPDATE January 29, 5.30pm
Arts Minister and Member for Gwoja Chansey Paech says that “there needs to be a holistic approach,” to finding accomodations and camping arrangements for educational tours in Alice Springs, especially as the opportunities that could arise from a National Aboriginal Art Gallery boom.