Access is everything in tourism. It’s the first rule of the industry – good access can make a destination, bad access can kill it. Just look at the poor performance of Tasmania over the past couple of years, fewer flights equals less people. It’s a simple equation and the reason destinations chase airlines so hard.
It’s always been this way but the trend gained pace with the rise and rise of Low Cost Carriers, which first emerged in the guise of Virgin Blue (now Virgin Australia) during the early 2000s.
Virgin was joined by Jetstar in 2004 while Tiger Airways entered the fray a few years later.
For the first time there was genuine competition in Australia’s domestic aviation market. Airfares came tumbling down and the travelling public responded in a big way.
Domestic air travel went through the roof and is now at around 55 million passengers a year, though growth has tapered off and the upward curve has flattened right out.
Glamorous indeed but along the way have been some tourism casualties, in particular the long-distance coach industry, which carries more than two million passengers each year worth an estimated $5 billion to Australian tourism.
In the 1990s, there were “15 bus operators running between Sydney and Brisbane and every service would be full” according to John King from Premier Motor Service.
Now there are just two – Greyhound and Premier – while the number of significant regional operators has been dramatically reduced.
Once well-known brands like Skennars, Kirklands, McCafferty’s and Deluxe are no more or have retreated to safer, more localized markets.
This situation is repeated throughout Australia as people choose to fly rather than catch a bus.
“There aren’t many long distance operators left,” confirms David Goeldner, Managing Editor of Australasian Bus and Coach.
“The big coach companies have all morphed into something else, diversified or disappeared altogether.”
Others have acquired travel agent licenses and become tour operators.
It’s been a period of enormous change and consolidation, all done pretty much in isolation.
The consolidation continues with Greyhound, which carried approximately 1.4 million passengers last year, recently buying backpacker coach line Oz Experience for an undisclosed sum.
Sounds chaotic, and it is, but despite all the turmoil industry leaders are still optimistic.
John King from Premier says there are opportunities but operators need to be strategic with the routes they service.
He says the obvious targets are destinations with no air or rail service, where there is consistently still strong demand.
“Our average travel is 365km and the airlines can’t deal with that,” Mr King says. “That has been our business plan since were started long distance services and we haven’t waivered from that.”
Premier, based in Nowra south of Sydney, has grown from nine to 400 buses in 21 years, 50 of which operate the long-haul east coast tourist route between Melbourne and Cairns.
“We’ve been through a bit of a harrowing time of late because of a lack of numbers into Australia,” he says, adding that international tourists comprise an impressive 30 per cent of total business.
These are mostly backpackers taking advantage of the cheap flexible “hop on/hop off” tickets.
However despite strong international business, the industry feels state and federal tourism bodies are neglecting them in favour of airlines.
So the Bus Industry Confederation is fighting back, highlighting its value to domestic tourism in a bid to win better government support, issued a new policy statement called Moving People Across Australia pushing its case.
“The whole coach sector is not well understood and a big part of this exercise is education,” says BIC Executive Director Michael Apps.
“We think the focus has been on the airlines for too long and we’d like Tourism Australia and the states to develop a land transport plan that encourages people to drive through Australia rather than flying over it.”
Good luck with that.