What if the “Experience Economy’ was better than the ‘'Cheap flights economy’'?

In recent years Australians have aspired to cruise the world, to tick off overseas ‘Bucket List’ destinations and to buy cheap flights to luxury villas in Bali. That’s all changed.

Coronavirus has grounded everyone. Business travel has collapsed, overseas travel bans mean holidaymakers won’t be going anywhere for the foreseeable future and Australia’s two major airlines have furloughed thousands of staff.

Australian’s were anxious when airlines requested multi-billion-dollar Government bailouts. It’s no surprise. Cheap overseas flights, collecting frequent flyer points and ‘free’ drinks in the club lounge are a big part of modern life.

And therein lies a problem – Loss aversion. Cognitive psychology and decision theory tell us that humans prefer avoiding loss over seeking gain. Put simply, we think it’s better to not lose $5 than to find $5.

But, what if the “Experience Economy” was better than the “cheap flights economy’?

  1. Let’s experience what’s on our doorstep

COVID-19 has presented us with the opportunity to get out and about in our own suburbs. Many people have discovered where they live using the bicycles in the back of the shed. We’ve all had the time to find local places that we probably didn’t know existed three months ago.

Perhaps life beyond COVID could include more local tourism and day-trippers with or without the car?

I’m a regular visitor to North Stradbroke Island. I’ll often get the train to Cleveland and the connecting bus to Toondah Harbour, where I jump on the Water Taxi. The Straddie bus service meets every water taxi and takes passengers to all the key destinations and beaches between the jetty and Point Lookout. All the different modes of transport connect seamlessly and I’ve even done the trip with my scuba diving kit and a surfboard!

  1. Let’s experience new experiences

Many of us want unique experiences, knowledgeable hosts, neutral environmental impacts and fresh locally sourced seasonal produce. Bicycle tourism, as one example, has moved from the margins to the mainstream.

The very moment the Otago Central Rail Trail in New Zealand was proposed opposition groups began forming. People couldn’t see any tangible benefits of thousands of bike riders pedaling along a disused rail line. Now more than 60,000 people visit the trail each year. Many opponents have diversified their businesses to provide accommodation and cafes. Half of businesses along the trail directly attribute three quarters of their turnover to the trail. Turning a potential liability into an asset and an ‘experience’ product has enabled the community to prosper.

The Tarka Trail in Devon is one of England’s longest continuous traffic-free cycling paths. More than 180 miles of safe off-road cycling experiences has resulted in more than half a million additional tourist nights, directly created over 500 jobs and resulted in the opening of seven bicycle hire companies. Furthermore, job creation and tourist spending has occurred in an area of declining agricultural employment where diversification of the economy was needed.

It doesn’t have to require extravagant expensive infrastructure. Wollumbin Bicycle Group, in New South Wales, host ‘Ride the Scenic Rim’ cycling weekends. I’ve joined them. More than 100 people from across Australia converged on the Murwillumbah Showgrounds for bicycle excursions and après-cycling entertainment. Normal people on normal bikes cycled around the Tweed countryside, but most importantly spending cash on coffee in local cafes, buying dinner at local pubs and purchasing ice-creams and snacks from independent shops.

  1. Let’s experience Australian Icons.

Australia has some of the best landscapes in the world. We may not need to fly to Europe to walk the Camino, the South West Coast Path or the Pennine Way because we’ve got our own icons; the 1000km Bibbulmun Track, the 655km Australian Alps Walking Track, the 1200km Heysen Trail and the 5,330km Bicentennial National Trail from Cooktown in Far North Queensland to Healesville in Victoria.

Our tourism industry frequently voices that there’s not enough foot traffic (pardon the pun) for our tracks and trails to be viable. Perhaps an opportunity is marketing? I reckon 50% of the population don’t yet know that those iconic walks are there.

Should we perhaps use the stimulus or recovery money to build supporting infrastructure, facilities and transport links to create new jobs, new revenue streams and a new tourism economy? I’m thinking eco-accommodation near hiking trails, community facilities to support volunteer tourism near National Parks and opportunities for horse-riding or wheelchair access on our Rail Trails.

We’d been promised a perfect utopia of cheap travel, loyalty rewards and endless international destinations. But all that has changed. We need a new vision and a new plan for tourism.

Tourism providers don’t have the time or money to wait for people to travel here from far flung corners of the world. If we really want Australian tourism to be sustained, then surely the ‘Experience Economy’ is part of the answer?

It’s going to take courageous leadership, a plan of action and a willingness to change the status-quo. It’s urgent and it is critical, because as more and more tourism businesses close their doors, our politicians and policy-makers are faced with an increasingly bigger uncharted and unprecedented challenge: How to get tourism back on its feet?

What do you think?