Is Australian service getting better?

Australians’ reluctance to take holidays in their own country is finally turning around, according to the latest statistics. Even before the falling Australian dollar started to make it more expensive to travel overseas, the slide in domestic holiday-making has stabilised in the past two years and the industry believes it is starting to make headway in luring the locals back.

It doesn’t sound much but the 2012-13 National Visitor Survey released last week (June quarter report with annual summary here) has found that domestic overnight trips increased 2.6 per cent with visitor nights up 3.3 per cent and overnight visitor expenditure up 3.2 per cent to $51.4 billion.

Much of the growth was driven by leisure travel, with holiday trips up 5.6 per cent over the previous year while the visiting friends and relatives category was also up 1.6 per cent.

That compares with stagnation in the numbers over most of the past decade, which wasn’t a reflection of a lack of a consumer desire or ability to pay for holidays. The number of Australians heading overseas has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

And travellers haven’t been backward in coming forward about the poor reputation Australian holidays have for both value for money and quality of service.

In the past four years, Travellers Check has been a regular grizzle pit when travellers have been asked why they’ve been so determined to go somewhere else for their downtime.

Adele Labine-Romain, one of the senior voices in the tourism industry as the executive director of the Tourism and Transport Form, reckons the “drought” of the past decade is over as the figures start to recover.

But she warns that it’s just a fact that Australia is a high-cost, high-wage country and the renewed effort that resort operators and other accommodation providers are now making to improve service standards may take a little while longer to become apparent.

“It has been a challenge and it’s going to continue to be a challenge when you’re trying to talk to a domestic audience,” Ms Labine-Romain says. “Our expectations of service have increased as we have travelled overseas and seen what we can get elsewhere.

“I think that Australian companies in the tourism business are recognising that and, after a couple of years of higher profitability, they’re starting to reinvest in their people in training and they’re starting to reinvest in the product.

“I think that is going to help turn the value equation around, although there’s still a fair amount of work to go. I think we’re still two or three years away from really seeing a change.”

Much of the talk from the tourism industry in the past two years – and from the peak government body, Tourism Australia, in particular – hasn’t been about providing a better deal for domestic tourists, even though they are 80 per cent of the industry, but about new five-star experiences for tourists from overseas.

That’s part of the national strategy to double 2010 visitor expenditure from $70 billion per year to between $115 billion and $140 billion by 2020.

In statistical terms, hitting the target would require a massive increase in consumer expenditure compared with the experience of the past decade – an average annual growth rate of between 3.8 per cent and 5.4 per cent, compared with the recent historic trend growth of 1.4 per cent.

“Any investment to attract the inbound audience will also have a benefit for the domestic audience, so I’m always excited to see new product,” says Labine-Romain.

However, Labine-Romain cautions: “We’re going to be challenged to provide the same service that we see in near countries (like Thailand and Indonesia) so it has got to be about the product.

“And that’s why we’re encouraging governments to make strategic tourism infrastructure investments in some of the key areas across the country because that will then really incite private sector investment.

“At that stage, all of a suddenly you’re starting to see the pieces come together and you’re starting to see the domestic visitor being quite excited to travel again in Australia.”

Even if you’re not convinced, will you roadtest an Australian holiday to see if anything has changed? If you’ve taken an Australian holiday in the past year, have you noticed an improvement in service standards?