Article – Tourism Slides from Rocks to a Hard Place

5 July 2014
Amos Aikman
The Australian

PHOTO: Japanese tourist Tsuyoshi Saikchachi with his wife Hitomi and their children, Yuki and Minori, at Ubirr in Kakadu National Park. (News Corp Australia)

SOME of Australia’s best natural assets are going to waste, with tourism numbers dwindling across the Northern Territory amid concern high costs, tired infrastructure and lack of innovation could threaten northern development.

Growing the tourism industry is one of the key strategies highlighted by the federal and Territory governments in their plans to develop the north, yet figures show tourism operators had a shocking 2013.
Visitor numbers fell 10 per cent Territory-wide, and by as much as 27 per cent in some areas. Tourism expenditure dropped 8 per cent or about $140 million on the previous year. The Territory’s economy is the most tourism-dependent in the country.
The bad news follows long-term declining trends in visitor numbers to key attractions such as Kakadu National Park. After a peak of about 200,000 visitors ­annually at the turn of the century, just 123,000 came to the entire Kakadu-Arnhem region last year.
Many tourists visit the Territory for its exquisite landscapes, indigenous culture, and to see the outback. Yet almost all of those ­interviewed in Kakadu this week said the tourism experience (but not its beautiful landscapes) compared unfav­ourably with other destinations.
Tsuyoshi Saikchachi, visiting from Japan with his family, said many attractions, as well as the ­accommodation and restaurants, were expensive. Others spoke of tired hotels and disappointing restaurants. “It’s also very hard to find information by yourself,” Mr Saikchachi said. “We haven’t met many indigenous people, which is something we would like to do.”
Alexander Kampits and Joh­anna Binder, from Austria, travelling Australia in a campervan, struggled to get updates on road conditions in the Territory. “Just yesterday we had to cross a river with crocodiles in it, and we had to turn around because the water was too deep. The landscape and scenery is beautiful, but for Europeans the cities are boring.”
Visitors at Kakadu’s main settlement of Jabiru encounter not a plush visitors centre, but a mining town. Anyone missing the turn-off (as many do) ends up at the Ranger uranium mine itself. Justin O’Brien, chief executive of Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, representing the Mirrar trad­itional owners of Kakadu, said the tourism industry was overdue for “revivification”.
“You don’t get a sense of quality, you don’t get a sense that your money is being well spent in the NT.” He argues tourism should be more indigenous-led.
In central Australia, Uluru ­recorded a 14 per cent increase in visitors in 2013, in part thanks to better marketing. But for the wider Alice Springs region, and everywhere else in the Territory, tourist numbers were down.
A common theme heard by The Weekend Australian was that the Territory cannot tell its own story. Visiting Uluru, French tourists Fanny Bodennec and Erell Lrocat by chance discovered they could drive the route via Kings Canyon and the MacDonnell Ranges back to Alice Springs. “You can see a meteor crater,” Ms Lrocat said. “For everybody I think it’s fascinating, but no one told us about it.”
Mr Saikchachi, too, found the Territory’s message confusing. “Places like this make us imagine Crocodile Dundee,” he said. “But we haven’t seen him yet.”
Courtesy of The Australian