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Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia
Opportunities and methods for stimulating the tourism industry in Northern Australia

KELLY, Mr Nick, Area Manager, Northern Territory, Professional Helicopter Services

WALLACE, Mr Ian, Base Manager, Ayers Rock Helicopters

WILLIAMS, Mr Andrew, Chief Executive Officer, Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia


CHAIR: I now welcome Professional Helicopter Services and Ayers Rock Helicopters. These hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. As I indicated, the evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. Could you give us a brief opening statement, and then we can have some questions.

Mr Kelly : I'll start. Really the only issue that I could think of to bring to the committee was this housing shortage here in Yulara. That is really the only thing limiting our capacity to expand in employment, as there is nowhere to house any new staff members, which limits our capacity to service the resort.

CHAIR: What are your requirements?

Mr Kelly : At this stage, we employ 11 pilots up here, and in this peak season, with the resort being at maximum capacity, obviously we're turning people away for our premium flights, like tonight with the sunset flight and the sunrise flight. Basically, to be able to accommodate more guests to visit the resort for these flights, we would require a couple more staff members, meaning a couple more rooms or houses.

Mr Wallace : Ours is pretty much the same issue. We only have enough housing for eight staff members, so we can't employ admin staff and stuff like that. This year the resort's just gone crazy, and we're just constantly out of the office. We don't have the manpower to keep up with it all, and we don't have any housing that's available to employees.

CHAIR: So that is the major impediment to growth and to meeting visitor demands for the work that you do?

Mr Kelly : Absolutely. We can increase, and we have increased, the capacity of our aircraft, but there's only a certain size of aircraft you can grow to before you lose the exclusivity of the product we're trying to sell.

Senator McCARTHY: Can I just be clear, Mr Kelly. You have 11 pilots, and that's one company.

Mr Kelly : Yes.

Senator McCARTHY: And the other company has eight pilots?

Mr Wallace : Correct, yes.

Senator McCARTHY: I will go to you first, Mr Kelly, and then it will be the same question for Mr Wallace. Just so we have an understanding, we're listening to two separate companies here. Can you just give us an idea of how long you've been running the service you provide here and just what costs are involved in running your service here.

Mr Kelly : Sure. Professional Helicopter Services has been operating here since 1991 and out at Kings Canyon since 1995. I am not too privy to the operating costs of our operation at my level. There is overhead for accommodation, the remoteness of the area, travel expenses for maintenance engineers to visit, freight of parts and all of these sorts of things. Being in a remote area increases those sorts of costs.

Senator McCARTHY: With 11 pilots, how many choppers do you have?

Mr Kelly : It varies from time to time, as we do have two other bases that we service. Depending on where the demand is, the helicopters move around. At this point in time, I believe we have seven helicopters here, one at Kings Canyon and one at Home Valley Station for the peak season up there.

Senator McCARTHY: When you say two bases, which two are they? Uluru and Home Valley?

Mr Kelly : As the company, we have Uluru, Kings Canyon, Home Valley—as a season—and then we also have Melbourne and the Gold Coast as the two major centres for the company.

Senator McCARTHY: Where is the head office?

Mr Kelly : Moorabbin Airport in Melbourne.

Senator McCARTHY: Mr Wallace, can I ask the same of you—how many choppers you have and the service that you provide.

Mr Wallace : Very, very similar. Obviously there are the two companies up here. We offer aeroplanes and helicopters. At the moment, we have five helicopters here between Yulara and Kings Canyon, and then we also have five fixed-wing aircraft here, too. We also have bases back down in Moorabbin as well. We operate very similarly around Australia, the two companies.

Senator McCARTHY: On a daily basis, are you just focused on sunrise and sunset tours or—

Mr Wallace : All day long. Yes, sunrise to sunset. It is operate on demand. If the guests want to fly, then, as long as the sun is up, we will fly.

CHAIR: With your housing requirements, do you lease, rent or are you able to build for your own accommodation requirements?

Mr Kelly : At this stage, we lease all of our accommodation from Voyages. I know recently that we were looking at buying our own equipped dongas, however there wasn't the infrastructure here to equip all of these new dongas to be put in. I believe that is currently in the process of being sorted out—hopefully moving forward from this year.

Mr Wallace : We lease from Voyages as well.

CHAIR: I just checked with Warren, who is the local member here, and I understand that this is under the Northern Territory government jurisdiction—the town of Yulara is not a local government. There's no local government authority. It's a question we will have to ask other witnesses, but do you understand where the constraint is? It was actually mentioned briefly by a previous witness in relation to the lack of service infrastructure to accommodate the expansion. Is that how you understand it as well?

Mr Wallace : I believe so, yes. It has always sort of been that it is.

Mr Williams : I can confirm what the gentleman said, that availability of infrastructure and services is the main constraint. We have plenty of land here—as I mentioned earlier, 100 square kilometres. Whilst the majority of the staff housing here is owned by Voyages and leased either to our own staff or staff of business partners, there are also a small number, I think 24, of houses owned by the Northern Territory government. We are investing in the development of some additional staff housing ourselves, which will create 160 single-person quarters. In order to do that, we have had to negotiate with NT Power and Water to install additional infrastructure, mainly around water and sewerage, because the current water and sewerage infrastructure is at capacity. We have been encouraging business partners here to invest in the development of their own housing, with Voyages leasing land to them for that purpose.

CHAIR: But they couldn't do that before the upgrade of your water and your sewerage.

Mr Williams : Correct.

CHAIR: What about power?

Mr Williams : There is sufficient power at the moment. There is a different issue there in that our agreement with NT Power and Water is coming to an end next year, so we're in discussions with them and the Territory government about new long-term arrangements for power generation in Yulara. While the power infrastructure here does generate sufficient energy, it is also nearing the end of its useful life, so we're looking at developing new power infrastructure that will increase the renewable component. We've invested in creating a solar array here, which you may have seen on your way in.

CHAIR: Yes, we did.

Mr Williams : That can supply up to 30 per cent of the resort's electricity—on average, around 15 per cent. The main constraint on capacity at the moment is water and sewerage, so we're in discussions with Power and Water about further investment.

CHAIR: Where's your water from? Is it bores?

Mr Williams : Correct. There's a borefield. Power and Water operate a water treatment facility out at Giles Street which reverse osmoses that bore water to purify it for potable water. That system, as I mentioned, is at capacity. We're working on development of a master plan for Yulara in close cooperation with the NT government. We've recently engaged a consultant to undertake that planning work, for which the NT government is funding half the cost. The aim of that is to map out the long-term growth plans for the resort that will deal with not only new tourism infrastructure but those essential and other government services that are required to support that growth. As I mentioned, we've been encouraging business partners to develop their own housing. We've had one successful project, the Australian Remote and Regional Community Services, who operate the aged-care facility in Mutitjulu. Last year they developed I think six houses for their staff on land that we leased to them. As I mentioned, any future expansion is reliant on getting that water and sewerage infrastructure expanded.

CHAIR: The water is available there; it just has to be developed. There's no shortage of water under the ground.

Mr Williams : Correct.

CHAIR: It's a matter of developing it to get it to the surface so it can be used, and that would be part of the sewerage requirement as well.

Mr Williams : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: Is the industrial park out the back here on your land?

Mr Williams : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: Those sorts of ad hoc dwellings, the lean-tos and caravans, have been places of long-term residence for some people. Do you lease those to people?

Mr Williams : I'd have to take that on notice. I'm not sure, to be honest, of the precise arrangements there.

Mr Pieper : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: You do.

Mr Williams : Manfred is confirming that is the case.

Mr SNOWDON: The issue for any further development is getting the stuff done here. What about other services, like medical services?

Mr Williams : The health centre is an issue. As much as the population of Yulara has grown, the adequacy of that service is not what we would like it to be. There's currently one full-time doctor and one part-time doctor, and there are often delays for residents in getting medical attention. We've been lobbying the Territory government to add to the resourcing of that health centre. We understand there's also an opportunity, potentially, for congress to provide some services here, given the large Indigenous population that we now have.

Mr SNOWDON: Is it an NT government clinic?

Mr Williams : Yes, it's operated by the Central Australian Health Service.

Mr SNOWDON: Moving on to our friends from the helicopter industry: your flight proximity to areas of the rock is restricted. Are you comfortable with that?

Mr Kelly : Absolutely. We understand the reasoning for all of it. Occasionally we get the complaint from the odd passenger that wants to fly right over the top of it, but it all works very well. Out here at night we'll have six helicopters and four or five fixed wings all flying the scenic pattern together.

Senator McCARTHY: We were just talking about leasing from Voyages. I'm sorry if you have already answered this: how much do you lease the properties?

Mr Kelly : How many properties we lease?

Senator McCARTHY: How many and how much?

Mr Kelly : I am not aware of the actual costings. That's all covered by our head office, so I am unfamiliar with that. We lease six properties, I believe.

Senator McCARTHY: One final question: are there any Indigenous employees in either of your organisations?

Mr Kelly : Not amongst our employees up there, no.

Mr Wallace : No.

Ms O'TOOLE: Is your work seasonal?

Mr Kelly : Not so much for the last few years. The resorts are obviously doing very well.

Mr Wallace : Traditionally it is seasonal. In summertime it obviously dies off a lot, but this year, I guess, with promotions and the way the dollar was and everything like that, there were a lot of foreign tourists over here. It thrived through summer, despite the temperatures.

Ms O'TOOLE: If you employ people full-time, what would they do in an off season?

Mr Wallace : We rotate leave through the summer time when it is quiet. Obviously, there are some years when it is just too busy for people take leave.

CHAIR: I think it is fair to say that one of the bigger impediments, if you like, for growth and opportunities in this region is the lack of infrastructure that allows you to be able to grow appropriately and to be able to accommodate not just additional visitors but also services and that that are part of the experience.

Mr SNOWDON: It might be helpful if we ask Voyages—not that that this was your responsibility—if you had a chronology of what the arrangements have been since the establishment of the park to date in terms of relations with the Northern Territory government and provision of services, so we can get an understanding what was agreed and not agreed, initially, and what are the obligations that have been agreed by the Northern Territory government and Voyages.

CHAIR: There would be very useful. We have no more questions. When you look at opportunities and impediments, you guys have done exceptionally well with your evidence. We really appreciate that. I know that you are constrained for time, so thank you very much indeed for giving evidence here today. If we have any further questions we'll fire them off through the secretariat. Again, thanks for your presence today. Thank you very much, and troop, further coming forward.