Sorry Australia: Sydney's the only city anyone cares about

When foreigners think about cities in Australia, they're normally only thinking about one place: Sydney.
When foreigners think about cities in Australia, they're normally only thinking about one place: Sydney. Photo: AFP

Another day, another survey. This time it's PriceWaterhouseCoopers' ranking of the world's most attractive cities – and Sydney managed to come in ninth, despite having worse transport and infrastructure than Mumbai and Rio De Janeiro.

But why isn't Melbourne in the top 10? And where do the likes of Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide feature? Unfortunately, we'll never know – the people doing the survey simply didn't bother to look at any other Australian cities.

This is hardly unusual. If a global study needs a selection of 40 or 50 cities, it's often the case that Sydney will be the only one from Oz making the cut. It's the biggest city in Australia, and barring a few quibbles, it acts as a decent proxy for the country as a whole. The other cities? Well, they're kinda expendable.

Australia is not the only country where this is the case. The good folk of Manchester or Birmingham in England spit feathers when London is used as the sole urban representative of the UK. Lyon and Marseille get overlooked in favour of Paris. And good luck finding surveys of Mexico, Argentina and Thailand that are prepared to go beyond Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Bangkok.

For similar reasons, if there's a breaking news story in Australia or the Pacific region, international newspapers and TV stations will probably get their correspondent in Sydney to cover it. That the story may be happening thousands of kilometres away from Sydney is irrelevant – they've only got budget for one correspondent in the region, and Sydney is the logical base for them.

This is all reflective of a fairly uncomfortable truth – for most foreigners, Sydney is the only Australian city that matters. 

This is partly because, by global standards let alone local ones, Sydney is exceptional. Arguably only the likes of Cape Town, Vancouver and Rio De Janeiro can rival it for natural setting. We can argue about relative merits of cultural scenes, dining options and lifestyle until the cows come home, but in the eyes of a visitor prepared to fly half way across the world to visit Australia, looks give Sydney a monstrous head start.

Tourism Australia's own figures show that people don't really come to Australia for city life. Even the Chinese market, which is generally associated with preferring urban environments, puts visiting Aussie cities well down the list of priorities. Given a list of 19 aspects of Australia, such as "local culture and art" or "the laidback Australian lifestyle", "the major Australian cities" was ranked as the 16th most appealing option. Just 25 per cent liked the sound of it.

The same survey for the UK market gave a list of 12 destinations, and asked which ones appealed. Sydney came top, with 43 per cent. The next city was Melbourne, way back in joint fifth with 25 per cent and level with Tasmania. Just 17 per cent liked the sound of Adelaide, and that's partly because it was phrased as "Adelaide and surrounds", so it's fair to assume a fair chunk of that is down to the neighbouring wine regions. Perth and Brisbane? They weren't even given as options.

Ploughing through the stats, it's fairly easy to reach a conclusion that can be reached through a bit of soul searching and common sense. People aren't going to spend their limited holiday time flying 18 hours to a city that's quite nice, but is perhaps less interesting than several much closer to home. Sydney stands out because it has the natural wonders that people will fly such distances for – that it's a city as well is a handy bonus.

So before grumbling about Sydney getting all the limelight, it's probably worth putting local pride and petty parochiality aside for a second to ask yourself one question: If a friend from overseas had three weeks to spend in Australia, where would you suggest they go?

Personally, I'd check roughly what they're into, drill the idea of not trying to do too much in, then settle on something fairly predictable. Sydney, a bit of beach and bush, the Great Barrier Reef, and a taste of the Outback – probably in the Top End. If they're really, really into cities, then I'd suggest Melbourne too. Now it has toned down the insanely pointless "most European city in Australia" nonsense and has the confidence not to resort to comparisons, it's a strong enough primary destination in its own right.

Darwin, at least, has a distinctive vibe and character not really found anywhere else – although it is still best used as a base. Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Hobart? All places where you can have a perfectly enjoyable few days, but would leave you with a hefty dose of "is that it?" if spending a fortune and a year's annual leave to go there.

Is this something Australians should be up in arms about or embarrassed by? Not really. Many countries don't have a single city worth going so far out of the way for. Others have one or two. For a nation of under 24 million people and a considerable geographical disadvantage to have one undisputed urban draw card and another debatable one is pretty good going. Sydney may be the only Australian city foreigners care about – but that still represents a country punching above its weight.

David Whitley is an English travel writer who lives in Sheffield and loves all Australian cities equally.

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