Tourists head for the exits

The number of Australians holidaying overseas has doubled, leaving domestic operators reeling, writes Clive Dorman.

The Australian tourism industry reckons it has dodged a bullet in the past year, attracting more travellers from overseas as an increase in Asian visitors outstripped big falls in arrivals from recession-hit Europe and the US.

But that's not the problem. Australian operators don't know what to do about the fact that surging overseas travel by Australians is the worst possible advertisement for the country.

While domestic tourism has been on the slide for a decade, overseas travel by Australians has more than doubled. The latest government figures indicate almost a third of the population is taking an annual trip abroad. .

Tourism industry leaders have taken to haranguing people to "do the right thing".

"Domestic tourism makes up three quarters of the sector and some parts of Australia are still doing it tough [after last summer's storms and floods], so Australians need to balance out the appeal of overseas travel with Australian holiday breaks to support the sector, which directly employs half a million Australians," the federal Minister for Tourism, Martin Ferguson, said last week.

It is estimated the Australian tourism industry is worth about $94 billion a year and domestic travel accounts for about $60 billion of that spending. But travellers often complain online about high prices and poor service.

Tourism Australia's Tourism Directions conference in Canberra and the federal government tax summit, both next month, will confront tourism's malaise.

"Let's go to the two killer facts," says the chief executive of the peak industry lobby group, the Tourism and Transport Forum, John Lee.


"In terms of the assets, the properties, I talk about the apricot effect. There are still buildings, constructed by media moguls and others in the '80s, painted apricot, which was the colour of the '80s, that haven't been refreshed.

"The second thing is labour. We have at the moment a patchwork economy that is drawing chefs, cleaners, all sorts of people [whose skills we need] in the hospitality and tourism industry, being sucked towards the mining and commodities industry.

"We have people who are being paid twice their normal salary working [in mines] in remote parts of Australia being a chef ... It's very hard to compete with that."

However, Lee concedes that customer service is a "priority issue".

"People like myself grew up working at McDonald's, working in bars, working in restaurants," he says.

"It was always the entree to adulthood, what a majority of Australians did, working in retail or hospitality.

"Because of the technological revolution ... I think there is less of a propensity for some Australians to want to undertake that type of work and that's going to lead to a real skills gap in our economy that is another great threat to the tourism industry."

But a little patriotism wouldn't go astray.

"I think it's time for Australia to re-engage with its own," Lee says. "We have got to re-establish our love affair with our own country.

"We wouldn't begrudge anyone the right to travel overseas but it is time to get a bit parochial and celebrate your own country's assets."