Despite all the natural advantages of WA, the State still struggles to attract international tourists. So what needs to be done?
Despite all the natural advantages of WA, the State still struggles to attract international tourists, writes Rob Payne. So what needs to be done?
In 2017, more than eight million international tourists landed on Australian shores. The past year has seen visitor numbers surge to Tasmania (up 20 per cent), Victoria (up 9 per cent), South Australia (up 8.9 per cent) and New South Wales (up 8.5 per cent). Even our traditionally somnolent Australian Capital Territory grew by 15.8 per cent.
Yet, despite its small bars, Elizabeth Quay and the new Optus Stadium, Western Australia remains the runt, rising a meagre 1.1 per cent while seeing drops in nights spent (down 6.1 per cent) and visitor spend (down 8.3 per cent). So why are international visitors giving sandgropers the cold shoulder? Four ECU tourism experts weigh in.
One of Australia’s most iconic symbols, and biggest tourism draws, is the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland. While thousands flock to this unique underworld wonder, few visitors realise that WA has a world heritage rival with even more to offer.
“To get to the Great Barrier Reef, you board a boat that takes two hours at very high speed and seats 400 people — more than a jumbo jet,” says ECU Foundation Professor of Tourism Ross Dowling.
“At Ningaloo, you can swim out and snorkel over the reef. It’s so accessible and so clear and unspoiled. We need to market that.”
But while Ningaloo should be drawing the crowds, access is a key barrier, Dowling says, with WA lacking a northern international airport like Darwin or Cairns in the eastern states.
“It’s ridiculous that you fly from London to Perth and then turn around and have to fly half a continent back up to Broome,” Dowling says.
Getting to WA’s north by sea is also problematic, as the lack of a sufficient port in Exmouth has largely shut out cruise ships. While they can tender and shuttle visitors to shore, the winds and seas often make this a dangerous and avoided task.
It makes an obvious tourist drawcard just too hard to market
Too expensive, too dull
What about the capital city? Perth has the beaches, weather and amenities many cities can only dream of.
Yet for those thinking of heading to Perth, a couple of misconceptions linger, including that mining boom prices persist.
“During the boom, hotel rooms often ran to capacity at up to $400 a night, but we have a lot of hotels opening or opened, so we’re back to where we were in real terms with prices being more realistic,” Dowling says.
“We have to communicate that.”
Another belief is we’re isolated and once you’re here there’s not much to do. The trick to combatting that perception, Dowling believes, is to highlight new stories and experiences.
“One potential growth area is Aboriginal tourism,” he says.
“Visitors want these experiences and we have world-class Aboriginal tour operators, but they are not well promoted within WA or overseas.”
Capture their imaginations
The state can also learn a few lessons from Prague.
While you might not think the Czech Republic would be the first choice for South Korean tourists, a soap opera entitled Lovers in Prague proved so popular that Korean Air found itself flying at 100 per cent capacity.
“Television dramas or soap operas are very popular in Asia, and typically three or four of a season’s 24 episodes will be shot overseas,” says Associate Professor Sean Kim from ECU’s School of Business and Law.
“That’s how foreign locations can be showcased to audiences.
“Prague wasn’t a popular destination before Lovers in Prague, but the city became intertwined with the story.”
Kim is a global expert on the phenomenon of ‘film nostalgia’, which explores the nexus between identity and memory, and film or TV.
He explains that when we watch these mediums, the experience has a lot of emotional and sensory components, which can prompt people to make strong connections between themselves and a character or location.
“When I go to Hong Kong, there’s a long escalator that was the location for a fight scene in a film I watched when I was younger,” Kim says.
“I always strike a pose and psychologically and emotionally connect to the place and the past experience I had watching the film."
In our hyper-connected world, this phenomenon is increasingly impacting how international tourists make decisions.
A 2017 report by China’s social trip-planning website Mafengwo reported a whopping 24.5 per cent of Chinese travellers are influenced by TV, film and variety shows.
Think Harry Potter and England, Lord of the Rings and New Zealand, or even Game of Thrones and Northern Ireland. So what about a Chinese soap opera at Cottesloe beach?
Kim believes that is an option, as is producing a film or TV show set in the state centred on an icon Asians strongly associate with Australia.
“[WAAPA graduate] Hugh Jackman is a very strong figure and could pull in audiences – helping put our setting into people’s imaginations,” Kim says.
One technology that could help implant our landscape and features into people’s imaginations is virtual reality (VR) – an area Professor Sam Huang is exploring.
“Immersive VR can help people ‘visit before they come’, allowing them to experience what it is like to be at Cottesloe or Ningaloo Reef while still at home,” Huang explains.
“This sort of sensory experience can be very compelling.”
Huang also believes government tourism bodies need to make better use of machine learning and big data to understand what motivates people to make travel choices.
“Traditional advertising campaigns become expensive very quickly and we have no idea if they really work,” he explains.
“Getting a person’s attention does not necessarily lead to them getting off the couch to book a holiday."
With well over 100 academic publications to his name, Huang is not short on ideas to boost WA tourism numbers.
His recent research into ‘The Survey of Chinese Economic Life’ – a comprehensive data source involving 36,490 participants – has prompted him to suggest WA target that nation’s 125 second and third-tier cities.
While Beijing and Shanghai are saturated by tourism appeals from around the globe, these smaller cities (many with more than seven million people) are becoming wealthier and eager for travel.
“Perth could look at becoming a sister city and organising events such as footy matches, which Chinese people are curious about,” Huang says.
“There are so many possibilities.”
A new northern airport, Asian soap operas and letting everyone know the mining boom is over... it is clear Western Australia has a wealth of options to boost its tourist numbers – perhaps ‘another day in WA’ is dawning beyond tennis players smiling with quokkas.
In early 2018, Nevil Alexander from ECU’s School of Business and Law received national media attention for suggesting Australia boost its tourism offerings by promoting its growing craft beer culture.
Even he was surprised by the reaction, yet it makes sense.
“If you look at the Czech Republic, Germany or Belgium, a lot of people go there to visit breweries,” he says.
“We’ve now got a density in Perth and the Swan Valley where a craft beer package tour could be developed, perhaps with an option to go down south. From the awards our brewers are winning, we know the product is good.”
Craft beer seems like the perfect complement to Tourism WA’s Taste 2020 initiative, promoting premium wines and food. After all, some people at least prefer summer ale to shiraz.
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