Tourism has become a very serious business. I know this because older men in dark suits now tell me it is so.
Instead of a smiling Lara Bingle asking “where the bloody Hell are you”, we have Tourism Minister Martin Ferguson imploring us to holiday at home, his message reinforced by the looming presence of Geoff Dixon and Andrew McEvoy from Tourism Australia.
They are all wearing suits and look like they really need a holiday. Instead they are trying to sell us one. Something isn’t right. Could it be they are getting a little desperate?
Because that is the way it appears at times, as if they can’t quite figure out what is happening in Australian domestic tourism, where there is plenty of good news among the bad.
Perhaps they should relax and stop trying to reprise the 1980s because the industry is being driven by long-term trends they have absolutely no control over.
The big one of course is that more Australians are travelling overseas than ever before. The strong Australian dollar said to be the major driver.
This implies that when the dollar decreases in value relative to international currencies, the trend will slow – perhaps even reverse – with more Aussies holidaying at home.
I disagree with this logic. The trend toward international travel over domestic holidays has been in place for at least the past decade. For many of those years the dollar was weak.
A much more important driver has been access – better, cheaper and more frequent air services – and the simple fact that many Australians believe an overseas holiday is better value.
Some would say that’s a perception rather than a reality but so many Aussies see it as truth that there’s nothing to be gained by arguing the point.
Another key trend is that more Australians are flying domestically but staying away less for less time.
Figures from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics show that in the year to June 2011 Australian airlines carried a record 55 million passengers on more than 600,000 flights.
Total domestic passenger numbers increased by three million, up 5.8% over the previous year.
Tourism Research Australia statistics also show an increase in domestic travel over the same period with the number of overnight trips taken by Australians reaching 68.9 million, 4% higher than the previous 12 months.
Yet the amount of time Australians spent away from home remained static at 260 million nights.
In other words, their trips were shorter – an average of around 3.77 nights.
The vast majority – 71% – spent three or less nights away from home. Just two per cent of Australians went on a domestic holiday of 15 nights or more.
In contrast, the average time spent by an Australian on an international break was 20 nights.
Domestic spending also remained flat with an increase of 1% to $43bn despite encouraging signs in the last quarter.
It’s important to note that these figures have been propped up by the corporate sector which – like the economy – is travelling pretty well.
The TRA research shows that leisure spend dropped 4% over the 12 months to $21 billion.
You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.
And that is really the point here.
You’ve got to go with the trend, not against it because the reality is that there is some good news in those figures.
And that is – Australians are travelling more by air though the trend is toward short breaks.
Taking a holiday has also become part of Australian life.
As Flight Centre Managing Director Graham Turner said recently: “The company has not experienced the soft demand that retailers in some other sectors have reported (because) a holiday is not really considered discretionary spending.
“Taking time out for one or two extended breaks in Australia or overseas during a long working year is an annual ritual.”
Like Mr Turner, there is little doubt in my mind these trends are structural rather cyclical.
Hence there is a great opportunity to package and promote Australian travel in a way that appeals to the modern domestic consumer – essentially short, sharp value breaks and experiences – rather than trying to sell them on something they don’t want.
And lighten up – get the politicians out of the picture – tourism is supposed to be fun.