Where the Bloody Hell Are You?30 April 2013
With the economy still booming, our mounting obsession with NYC’s bright lights and Vietnam’s cheap phõ could jeopardise any one of the 118,000 workers directly employed in Victorian tourism alone. Phoebe St John examines why we never travel Australia anymore.
There I was. Ten minutes to midnight, pulling up in yet another foreign train station to yet another foreign city. I trudged the lengthy trail to my Edinburgh hostel, sleepy, disorientated, and craving a pineapple burger or nine in the icy December rain. Home had never felt so far away.
Upon entering the hostel’s digs, the caramel-coated warbles of San Cisco blast from a side room. Passing the kitchen, a jar of Vegemite hosts prime position on the breakfast table, so eagerly scraped that the glass is practically clear. A loud voice in the pub explains his disdain for the treacherous plane journey home, while a shrill responder rejoices in the novelty of cheap cider and superbly accented men. Above the bar’s door, a hastily scrawled sign welcomes guests in. “Australian and New Zealand Embassy,” it reads. Okay, scrap what I said about feeling far from home. We may as well just raise the flag and declare this place a colony.
While this may seem like an extraordinary case, Edinburgh’s Caledonian Backpacker’s Hostel is no outlier. The fact is, Australians are everywhere abroad. The United Kingdom, of course, provides a visa haven for us Commonwealth chums. Thailand thrives overrun with party-passionate revellers, Berlin is an emerging hotspot for lovers of thumping electronica and ironically-named cafes, and anyone who has even vaguely set foot in Banff, Canada, would attest that you pretty much cannot leave the house without hearing “G’day” (or contracting an STI for that matter, but that’s another story). With recent statistics of departures growing eight times faster than the rate of incoming tourists, young Australians are bidding “bon voyage” to the good ol’ days of humming up the Pacific Highway to Brisvegas in a sweaty, sticky Corolla, in favour of something a little more, well, exotic.
According to 2012 findings by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the last financial year saw Australians take a record eight million trips overseas, with sojourns to Spain escalating 26 per cent, Thailand 23 per cent, and hotspots such as Chile, Cambodia, New Zealand and Asian beach resorts transforming into the new voyage zeitgeists. Tourism Forecasting Committee chairman Bernard Salt told the Daily Telegraph in August that such strong globetrotting desires stem from our colonial history. “Young Australians are very proud of their overseas travel and they can recite trips they have been on like war campaigns,” he declared.
Recent University of Melbourne Commerce graduate Neha Sachdev, 20, couldn’t agree more. Finally kissing study goodbye in December, she fled the summer heatwave in favour of a whirlwind seven-week European adventure. “Honestly, I just wanted to feel free—forget everything back home and go see everything I’d heard about,” Neha admitted. “It was really the only option when it came to celebrating the end of my degree.” Although acknowledging that inland adventures come cheaper and language hassle-free (“You definitely can’t get $20 Tiger Airways tickets to Europe!”), Neha remained adamant she wouldn’t spend more than a month exploring her country. “Heading overseas is just more exciting,” she explained. “If you travel within Australia, you’re seeing new things but there’s no big cultural difference…plus I love meeting people from all over the world, seeing how they live, and that’s something you wouldn’t get to do if you’re travelling domestically.”
In their ‘Changing consumer behaviour: Impact on the Australian domestic tourism market’ report Tourism Australia itself recognizes the newfound student disinterest in inland vacations. The study asserted that under-35 “adultescents” commonly perceive domestic trips to be brief breaks, whereas a trip abroad almost always qualified as a proper holiday. Crystal clear changes in culture, history, language, food and climate are key in this widespread conviction—overseas lifestyles are deemed more “prestigious and exotic” than anything Townsville or Tassie could offer. Tourism Australia also blames alleged internal homogeneity teamed with soaring petrol prices, inconsistent regional transport and sheer geographical enormity for turning young travellers off domestic jaunts. But most crucially, the study found Generation Y continually dissatisfied with their internal surroundings. Instead, we are gazing at the globe for transformative experiences, more bragging rights, and, yes, a fancy new Facebook profile picture taken at a location that Tom Cruise has probably proposed at.
Jenna Nation, travel agent at the STA Carlton branch, also referred to the multicultural diversity of our student body as a contributor to this phenomenon, confirming that only three out of her average 95 weekly enquiries were domestic-related. “A lot of people have family that they visit overseas or they want to go to a certain destination because they know the language,” she noted. “I think you grow up knowing that one day you will go and do a big trip through Asia, Europe, South America…”
But ultimately, it all comes down to the cash. “I know for myself I would rather spend $1000 on a month in Asia than $1000 on a week in Queensland,” Jenna admitted. “If the cost of living continues to rise, I don’t think we will see a return to domestic travel anytime soon.”
So it seems the impact of this spike in foreign wanderlust could be bigger than a few green-eyed Instagram stalks of your workmate kissing dolphins in Vanuatu. Tourism and Transport Forum Chief Executive John Lee raises regular concerns for regional tourism. In 2011 he estimated that, with the dollar at its current standard, “outbound [travel] will continue to grow strongly and the buying power of international visitors is reduced, meaning the tourism trade deficit could top $10 billion a year.” With our economy still booming, this mounting obsession with NYC’s bright lights and Vietnam’s cheap phõ could jeopardise any one of the 118,000 workers directly employed in Victorian tourism alone.
Tourism Research Australia’s September 2012 report explicitly states that the gradual decline in profitability “does not bode well for supporting stronger investment and productivity in future years.” Certainly, the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism confirmed that only a measly 32 per cent of Australians managed to make it interstate in the last financial year. And of these, only 26 per cent stayed in official accommodation, most bunking in on friends’ couches or relatives spare rooms. Meanwhile, international trips equated to around 143 million nights away, something that’s got to pack a punch with operators back home. At least overnight visitors injected $20.9 billion into the Aussie tourism industry last year—our fighting-fit dollar a welcome silver lining.
The trouble lies in years ahead. As Jenna asserts, our tourist scene lingers “underrated—something people think they will do later once they have seen the rest of the world.” Countless ads may tempt us to Uluru or Mt Buller, but 2011 Tourism Australia surveys maintain only one in four Australians planned to travel interstate last year, with Tourism Victoria forecasting a rise of less than two million domestic visits by 2022. Chief execs like John Lee may pioneer for new investments to vie against overseas competitors, but big jet planes continue to soar over unchartered waters and young Aussies still set up camp abroad. There may be sunburnt plains, untouched world-class landscapes and fine culture to boot, but something’s not clicking. A plethora of hosts remain here with the same question on their lips. Australians, where the bloody hell are you?