I'd love to be heading off to admire crocs and Aboriginal rock art in Kakadu in a couple of months. Same goes for cruising the Kimberley coast, bracketed by a few days in Broome and Darwin. Ditto Lord Howe Island in October when the red-tailed tropicbirds are breeding along the cliffs. Governments of all stripes are egging me on and subsidising my travels by way of half-price airfares – but I just can't afford it.
Don't get me wrong, I can do cheap. There's plenty to love about Australia that doesn't involve a deep dive into the piggy bank. A hike in the Blue Mountains with the earth spiralling away at my feet and waterfalls spurting from the escarpment above costs next to nothing. Victoria's Black Spur Drive with a spot of wine tasting in the Yarra Valley – fantastic! I have a covert fascination for cheap motels which is regrettably not shared by my partner but Australia's iconic experiences - the ones that are going to stick in your memory forever – are scaldingly expensive.
Whether it's hotels, ski lift passes, car hire or cruises, Australia has a reputation as an expensive destination. It's all down to Australia's high wages, travel operators will tell you. Really? Europe has high wages but travelling in Australia puts it in the shade. Here are a few examples.
A 10-night Kimberley cruise will set you back a shade over $10,000. That's the starting price, per person, and one of the cheaper cabins. Go for something upmarket such as a Deluxe Stateroom aboard Ponant's swish Le Laperouse and you'll pay $12610 each for that 10-night cruise. By contrast, a cabin on an 8-night cruise with Ponant through the Greek Islands this summer starts from $6510 per person. Aboard a Seabourn ship, just about the last word in cruising excellence, a 14-day circuit cruise from Barcelona taking in the French and Italian rivieras, Corsica, Sardinia and Malta starts from $12,799 per person, less per day than a Kimberley cruise.
A day cruise to the Great Barrier Reef aboard the Quicksilver catamaran out of Cairns costs $266 for an adult, $666 for a family, but only if there are no more than two kids. An 11-hour cruise from Milazzo in Sicily to the island of Panarea to take in the largest fortified citadel in Sicily, a swim at Red Beach and then on to Stromboli in the evening to watch the nighttime pyrotechnics of one of Europe's most active volcanoes comes in at $95 per adult.
Sixt car rentals in Switzerland's Lucerne will put me behind the wheel of a Mercedes Benz A Class for $700 for a one-week hire this August. For that same week, a Toyota Yaris from Budget in Darwin will cost $647. In Hobart, that Yaris comes with a one-week price tag of $947 from Alamo. Tasmania is the most expensive place in the country to rent a car right now. Car hire operators sold down their fleets during the pandemic, and now that interstate travellers are heading back they've jacked up prices to take advantage of the scarcity.
A 3-day trip aboard The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin starts at $4869 for two sharing a Gold Twin cabin in November. That includes meals and tours at Alice Springs and a cruise on Nitmiluk Gorge at Katherine. That's about the same as a Grand Class Room aboard Spain's belle epoque Al Andalus train on a 7-day trip sampling the delights of Andalusia.
Ski lift passes
A two-day ski lift pass at Japan's Niseko, popular with Australian skiers, cost $175 in the ski season just ended. At Austria's swanky Kitzbuhel, favoured by Euro-royals, that same lift pass would have set you back $182 in peak season over the winter of 2020-21. Meanwhile at Mount Buller in August 2021, a two-day lift pass sells for $298. At Thredbo in July and August it's an eye-watering $338. Over the Tasman at at New Zealand's Treble Cone in the coming season you'll pay about $250 for a two-day lift pass.
Why our iconic experiences are so expensive
Isolation is one reason. Many of those experiences take place in remote regions, often in wilderness. Establishing high end accommodation in a remote location – and 'high end' in this case can mean a plush tented camp that qualifies for the 'glamping' tag - delivering quality food and rich and satisfying daily experiences costs a bomb when you're catering to a small number of guests prepared to shell out $1000-plus per person per night. Kimberley Coastal Camp, Bamurru Plains on the floodplain of the NT's Mary River and Arkaba in the Flinders Ranges of SA are just a few that spring to mind. Costs are even higher for those that can only operate for a few months each year due to climate (which includes our ski fields).
Given prices like these, and the complete absence of international visitors prepared to pay for these top-shelf experiences, you might think you could book yourself in no problem, but domestic tourism is on a roll right now. After being penned up last year, we're desperate to break free and since all foreign parts except for New Zealand are off limits for a holiday, domestic tourism is going gangbusters, and there's plenty who are cashed up and hot to trot.
A ride aboard The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin? You'd be lucky to get a booking in November or December. Same goes for a Kimberley cruise. Cabins at the lower end of the price scale have all but evaporated for 2021. Pinetrees, the largest accommodation on Lord Howe Island, is booked solid until Christmas. Hawk Dreaming Wilderness Lodge in Kakadu is full for this year, and it's the same story for much of the accommodation in Australia's largest national park.
"We're totally booked up until the end of the season," one accommodation operator in Kakadu told me. "We've never seen bookings like this." It's the feast after the famine. After a year of zero tourism income in 2020, travel operators are making hay while the sun shines.
If you're looking to go anywhere in the Top End, the Red Centre or cruising along the Kimberley coast, better book now because the outlook for overseas travel next year is about as certain as a roll of the dice.