Why Australians cringe at the bucket-list experiences tourists come here for

It's not the beaches, as beautiful as they are. Those photos of long stretches of white sand, of iconic places like Bondi and Whitehaven, Byron and St Kilda, Cottesloe and Surfers, have been getting plenty of "likes" on Instagram – but they're still not the most popular.

The pictures of Sydney Harbour are the same. The Opera House, too. Even the street-art-plastered laneways of Melbourne, so appealing to the Insta-crowd, haven't been number one.

I've been watching, recently, as a few German friends have been travelling around Australia for the first time, posting photos on Instagram for their friends back home. It's been interesting seeing which images are the most popular, which places and experiences in Australia other foreigners are most inspired by and most want to see for themselves.

Yes, the beach shots have been popular. And everyone loves a sunset. The recognisable buildings and structures in Australia – the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, Hosier Lane, Bondi's Campbell Parade – have also garnered plenty of attention. But still, those places are not the pinnacle.

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There's one photo that my friends have put up that has topped any other pic in terms of likes and comments. There is one scene that has trumped all others.

That scene? It was taken at Currumbin Sanctuary on the Gold Coast. It's a photo of my two friends standing, smiling at the camera, with a koala in their arms.

That's right: the most exciting, inspiring, amazing thing my friends have done in Australia is cuddle a koala.

We Australians tend to forget, I think, the things that foreigners love about our home. We always like to spruik the new stuff, the wineries, the cafe culture, the restaurants, the art galleries and the music venues. Those things are important to us. We're proud of these cultural staples that put us on par with the rest of the world.

But foreign tourists? That's not what they're here for. That's not the dream that they have of these fair shores.

It's not that tourists don't enjoy those things. My German friends loved Melbourne, loved exploring the laneways of the CBD, the shops of Fitzroy, the bars in South Yarra. They hung out in Marrickville while they were in Sydney. They spent time in Brisbane's West End. Those things are enjoyable to young travellers.

But that's not what inspired their friends to want to come to Australia and see it for themselves. That was all down to a cuddly koala.

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This is something that bears remembering when we see Tourism Australia ad campaigns and cringe at the use of what we see as tired old cliches, hopping kangaroos and Uluru sunsets, lorikeet feeding and walks on the beach. It might seem unimaginative, but this is what potential visitors to our country want to see, this is what they dream of spending their money on.

That we would prefer to talk about the other stuff – the bars and restaurants, the wineries and galleries – is more a product of our cultural cringe than a reason to say we've moved past it. Australians have always wanted the world to see us as a mature nation, a place with genuine culture that can hold its own with the countries that many of our ancestors came from.

No one overseas cares about that, though. They want to hug a koala. They want to pet a kangaroo. The fact we've got cafes that do really great smashed avo is just something pleasing to fill in the time between the real bucket-list experiences.

In fact, if there is something cultural that foreign tourists are interested in here, it's the world's oldest living culture, the one we tend to forget we have. It's far more interesting to travellers to learn about a history and a people they have no experience with than to view a modern culture that so closely reflects their own. Aboriginal history and culture still seems strangely absent from our view of what would make Australia attractive.

Still, what I'm saying here is that Australians are going to have to accept that the tired old cliches of Australiana are still the ones that overseas visitors are interested in. People come here for our beaches because they truly are some of the best in the world. They come here for the lifesavers and the surf culture, because that's different, that's unique. They come here for the Barrier Reef, for Uluru, for the Great Ocean Road.

They come here for kangaroos. And, maybe most of all, they come here to cuddle a koala. We might have to get used to that.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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