What do foreigners really think of Australia?

Opera House not white enough? What do foreigners really think about visiting Australia?
Opera House not white enough? What do foreigners really think about visiting Australia? Photo: James Brickwood

Tourism Australia is at it again, trying to encourage foreign tourists to visit our country.

Predictably, not everyone is happy with TA's efforts. Either the soundtrack sucks (which it kind of does), or the footage is full of clichés, or there's not enough cultural diversity. It's a tough one to balance, and it's worth bearing in mind that the campaign is not meant to impress Australians – it's meant to impress people who are considering coming to Australia.

But who are those people, and what do they actually think of this wide brown land of ours? Is it a place they still want to visit? Is it a place they know anything about? And what's going to persuade them to take the plunge and book a ticket over here?

Travel around the world a bit and you meet plenty of people, some who've already been to Australia, some who've always dreamed of coming to Australia, and those who have no intention at all.

I've spent the last three weeks in the USA, and it was interesting to hear different people's perspective on our country.

First there was the guy on the San Francisco cable car who heard my accent and wanted to know where I came from. "Australia," I said. The guy smiled. "Wow, you speak really good English."

So awareness of this little country – that's almost the same size as his – may not be spreading quite as quickly as we'd hoped.

Still, most of the people I spoke to there had the same thing to say: "Australia? Man, I'd love to go there. But it's just so far, you know?"

For plenty of Americans the thought of a 14-hour flight is incomprehensible. There's also the feeling that you'd need at least a couple of months to "do" Australia. And given most people only get a few weeks of holidays a year, a trip Down Under doesn't even warrant consideration.

Another more worrying trend I heard from people was something along the lines of this: "Australia? Wow. You know, I've always wanted to go to New Zealand."

Ahem. That's nice. That's like us saying, "Hey, you're from America? I've always wanted to go to Canada." But in the American consciousness Australia and New Zealand are one, and NZ seems to have the Lord of the Rings-backed edge right now.

But enough about the States. We're shooting at visitors from all over the world, from developing markets like China to stalwarts like Britons, the Dutch and Germans.

Many of the young travellers I've met from those latter countries have already been to Australia – some have lived here, others have spent a few months here. Apart from the lament I hear most often – that the Opera House isn't white enough – they've enjoyed themselves.

But they probably won't be back. Australia is a one-off destination, the kind of place you make a huge effort to get to, spend a long time in once you're there, and tick it off the list.

And yes, it's still the clichés that interest these guys. The trips to Bondi Beach, the chance to hug a koala, the easygoing lifestyle, the Outback, the wide open spaces, the big East Coast road trip. They haven't heard about the art galleries or the restaurants, and they mostly don't care.

Australia is not cheap for those travellers though, especially the backpackers who have stopped off in South-East Asia on their way through. You can bet they're going to go home and warn their friends about how prohibitively expensive everything here is.

That's a problem that's going to take some solving. Do we try to make things more affordable here, or just make it so attractive that people won't mind the expense?

It's rare you meet someone who's not at least a little bit interested in coming to Australia. The trick for tourism campaigners is to change us from an aspirational place that people dream about to a realistic place that people book a ticket to.

At the moment most people want to visit, they just don't want to have to fly so far to get here, and they don't want to spend much money when they arrive.

If you can sort that one out, you might have a job offer coming your way.

What do you think foreigners' perception of Australia as a tourist destination is?

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Email: bengroundwater@gmail.com

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