How Stereotypes Blind Our Tourism Vision

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Wednesday, January 13th, 2016
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Tourism development and strategy is supposed to be about attracting visitors to spend money in your area, thereby creating additional capital inflows, stimulating investment and creating jobs.

But in reality, the game has become one of ‘me too’ imitation, whereby stereotypical notions of what ‘tourism’ is supposed to mean drive both strategy and execution. The overwhelming stereotype of tourism is the recreational image we have of (invariably young) people on holidays, enjoying surf, sand, sun or reef.

The stereotype is all-consuming to the point that many areas looking to develop their tourism appeal or industry fall into the trap of trying to mimic places synonymous with the stereotype. Some even go to the extent of trying to create reconstituted imitations in the form of artificial lagoons or beaches, or rainforest glasshouses, or they attempt to lure theme park attractions in the hope that this is what’s needed to support tourism development. There is so much wrong with this blinkered thinking, it’s hard to know where to start.

First, we need to remember that the tourism industry is not just about holidays or recreation. For example, of the total 7.232 million international visitors to Australia this year, only 45 per cent nominated “holiday” as their purpose of visit. Another 11 per cent nominated “business” (which includes conventions or meetings) and 28 per cent nominated “visiting friends and family” as their main purpose of visit. The balance was made up of visitors coming for education, employment or other purposes.

On a domestic basis (Australians travelling at least one night away from home) “holidays” accounted for 49 per cent of trips but “business” accounted for 25 per cent and “visiting friends and family” a further 21 per cent. Keep in mind that the ratio of domestic to international tourism is roughly 75 per cent to 25 per cent.

So business related tourism is a significant part of the market, but it is too frequently overlooked. Think of any tourism industry research report you can lay your hands on, or for entertainment, try a Google search of ‘tourism Australia.’ Invariably, not only are the images typically sun, surf, sand, reef or iconic destination landmarks, but the tone of the research content is biased to the economics of leisure travel.

I recall my days as chief executive of Brisbane Marketing, when I asked people which market they thought was the biggest tourism market in Queensland. Invariably, they would nominate the Gold Coast, but it remains a fact that Brisbane has more visitor nights and more expenditure than the Gold Coast.

A big part of the reason is business travel and the related conventions market. Those five-star CBD hotels rely on business travelers, not so much holiday makers, to support the jobs they provide. But this doesn’t conform to the stereotype of what tourism is, and so many other regions wanting to grow their tourism industry continue to look to destinations like the Gold Coast for ideas, and not to urban centres.

The facts are that international visitors arriving for business, meetings or conventions will spend on average $175 per night of stay (excluding airfares). International travelers coming for a holiday, by comparison, spend just $93 per night. Yes, holidaymakers will stay for longer on average, so they end up spending roughly the same, but the point about the lucrative nature of the business traveler should not be lost. They are high yielding travelers, more likely to spend more on their hotel rooms, food, and shopping than recreational travelers. In the case of domestic business travel, the difference is less stark at $212 per night for business versus $209 per night for leisure. What’s interesting here, though, is that the domestic business traveler is just as lucrative in daily spending as their international counterpart.

Neither should we be blinded by the view that business travel is all about capital city convention centres with five-star hotels within easy reach. It’s just as valid for the travelling salesman or businessperson visiting various outlets or distribution points around the country, and staying in regional or suburban hotels or motels as they do so. It also means the suburban and regional workplace that wants to get away from the office for that strategic planning day (and don’t we all have those) without having to travel long distances or incur very large costs for the privilege.

Think about how this plays out on a more local level. Imagine a region living in the shadow of a holiday tourism mecca. Is their best approach to try copy the holidaymaker appeal or would they be better advised to focus on developing business travel opportunities in the form of meetings facilities and supporting infrastructure? If a region is starting from scratch in terms of tourism, rather than try create some kitsch “tourist attraction,” are they better off leveraging existing industries, which could be anything from primary production to motor sports?

Tamworth is a great example of a town that focussed on a niche – in the form of country music – which was under its nose all along. It now drives a big part of the town’s tourism economy by attracting over 50,000 people to the Music Festival. Toowoomba has its Carnival of Flowers, but the lesser known ‘Farmfest’ agricultural event attracts some 2,000 companies and 60,000 visitors from across Australia and overseas. The iconic Bathurst Motor Festival attracts 10,800 visitors by comparison.

The point of all this is simple: we are at risk of falling for a stereotypical view of what tourism is all about, and how it should look. If we make that mistake, we can also be blind to opportunities that have the potential to create more investment and more jobs with much less effort or competition. And you don’t need to be a region with a sandy beach, palm trees or iconic man-made (or natural) feature to do that.

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