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Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia
23/07/2017
Opportunities and methods for stimulating the tourism industry in Northern Australia

GORNALL, Mr John, Northern Territory Manager, AAT Kings

HENDY, Miss Beth, Day Tours Supervisor, AAT Kings

[17:23]

CHAIR: We welcome our last witnesses for this particular session. I call representatives from AAT Kings. These hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament and the giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and can be seen to be a contempt of the parliament. The evidence given today, as I have indicated, is recorded by Hansard. I will now invite you to make a brief opening statement and then we can fire off with some questions.

Mr Gornall : From AAT Kings' point of view, we look after the Territory and we are probably the largest tour operator in the Territory. We have a base in Darwin, which looks after the Kakadu and the Top End area. We have one in Alice Springs and we also have one out here at Yulara for Uluru. We currently have 172 people employed in the Territory in the tourism side of it, and we have a head office in Sydney. We have other officers in Melbourne as well and up in Cairns. From the point of view of the tourists, quite often we can take the tourists once they come into Australia, so we can look after them for their time while they are here before they go back out.

CHAIR: Anything you need to add to that or are you right with that?

Mr Gornall : All good.

Mr SNOWDON: How many buses do you have?

Mr Gornall : In the Territory?

Mr SNOWDON: Yes.

Mr Gornall : At the present moment, there are 75.

Mr SNOWDON: In terms of tour operators here, you would be the largest tour operator.

Mr Gornall : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: How many people do you move annually here?

Miss Hendy : On average, I think we move between 5,000 and 10,000 a month, depending on the season and on various things like charter work, our language department—we have a language department that does Japanese and Italian touring—and also our own day tours, extended touring and things like that.

Mr SNOWDON: Are we talking to you again in Darwin?

Mr Gornall : Not that I am aware of, but you can.

Mr SNOWDON: We're going to be doing this again in Darwin.

Mr Gornall : Yes, that's fine. We can do it in Darwin or we can do it here.

Mr SNOWDON: I'm not sure how much time we've got in Darwin or here. I'm just thinking about the overall package of stuff you do across the Territory and elsewhere. Do AAT Kings operate in North Queensland and Western Australia as well?

Mr Gornall : We run guided holidays through WA and we have just taken full control of Down Under Tours in Cairns. That's now part of the company as well.

Mr SNOWDON: In terms of the bus experience, across the Top End, you would be the people we need to talk to, pretty much.

Mr Gornall : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: Malarndirri will ask you this question if I don't: what proportion of your employees are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people?

Mr Gornall : We don't have any down in the centre at all. At the current moment, I have 18 staff on Tiwi, because we also run Tiwi tours.

Mr SNOWDON: No worries. Thank you.

Senator DODSON: You mentioned Japanese tours or Chinese tours?

Miss Hendy : Italian tours.

Senator DODSON: How do you translate the experience?

Miss Hendy : With great difficulty. The guests do come through from those countries, particularly from Japan. Japan is probably our bigger international market. Obviously, I'm not Japanese, so I don't really understand—

Senator DODSON: I'm not so stuck on the language. I want to know what the content is and the way you're explaining to them as you travel through.

Miss Hendy : The content is the same. I have worked as a foreign language guide. The content that I do on English-speaking tours is the same as I do on Italian-speaking tours. I find that a lot of the guests who come from overseas are probably even more interested in the cultural aspect of things, because it is something quite different to what they've experienced.

Senator DODSON: How do you manage that? You've got a whole range of Northern Australia, with different peoples there. How do you manage the cultural diversity within the Indigenous population?

Mr Gornall : The guides based in the areas do their accreditation, as Parks were saying. Every guide, regardless of language, must do their accreditation. The information that we get from Uluru, the Italian guides and Japanese guides have to explain that.

Mr SNOWDON: The same as in Kakadu.

Mr Gornall : In Kakadu, it's the same. They do the accreditation through there.

Senator DODSON: And it's the same here?

Miss Hendy : Everyone who works as a guide either in Uluru-Kata Tjuta or up in Kakadu does their accreditation. Whether they're explaining to guests in English or whether they are explaining it in Japanese, Italian or French, it's the same information that they give.

Senator DODSON: Is there a prototype of this that you could table with us?

Miss Hendy : Prototype in what sense?

Senator DODSON: Or a format or a proforma. How do you translate what you're saying in English to the various other cultural groups, particularly in the cultural area of Indigenous culture?

Mr Gornall : What comes out of the Parks' accreditation course is what we would translate.

Miss Hendy : So it's essentially just translating the same information.

Senator DODSON: So you're relying on the parks to give you the interpretations?

Mr Gornall : Yes.

Miss Hendy : Yes. Obviously, everyone has their own experiences and things like that, which in some cases informs some of what they say, but obviously it's only within the framework of the accreditation that we see.

Senator DODSON: Is there the opportunity when you get to a destination for an encounter with the local Indigenous peoples?

Miss Hendy : We previously ran tours in conjunction with Anangu Tours. Unfortunately that fell through at the end of last season. We obviously encounter Anangu throughout the park and within the resort area and places like that. We encourage guests to interact with the Anangu ladies who come to sell their paintings at sunset, in a respectful manner obviously. In terms of an official interaction with Anangu people, since Anangu Tours disbanded, we haven't really had much opportunity to engage in touring opportunities.

Senator DODSON: A real encounter kind of experience?

Miss Hendy : Yes.

Senator DODSON: You're potentially moving 5,000 to 10,000 people a month?

Miss Hendy : Yes. I have been in discussions with Parks on and off. They're trying to organise a traineeship program for local Anangu youth for them to get experience within the tourism industry and we have offered whatever support we can give, whether that is in the day tours office, which I run, in guiding or things like that.

Senator DODSON: Do you do an exit survey or ask questions on the quality of the experience your travellers have had?

Miss Hendy : We previously had day tour surveys, guest experience surveys and things like that. Our return rate on them wasn't great.

Senator DODSON: Comments about the roads and stuff?

Miss Hendy : Yes. A lot of the comments that we were getting back were more with regard to the standard of the hotels and things like that than experiences within the park.

Ms O'TOOLE: Is there any particular reason why you don't employ local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people?

Mr Gornall : We try to do it as much as we can. One of the restrictions we have is that we run a lot of driver guides. We run into problems as far as licensing goes through the NT government. You have to do your medical and criminal history check before you can drive a large commercial vehicle. Sometimes that's an issue. We've raised it over the years with the NT government, but there haven't been any changes that I'm aware of. There's that in itself. At Tiwi it works very well. It appears to have a larger base and they're able to manage easier through the clan system so that we can deliver the products, whereas down here, as Beth was saying, once the Anangu project that we were running last year finished, we couldn't get it picked back up. I'm happy to look at it, that's for sure.

Ms O'TOOLE: So your driver does the driving and the speaking?

Mr Gornall : Yes, for a lot of the day touring.

Senator McCARTHY: You said that the relationship fell through with Anangu Tours. What happened?

Mr Gornall : I'm not right across it. My understanding is that, from the point of view of reliability and whatever else, we couldn't keep delivering the product.

Senator McCARTHY: In terms of your partnership with them?

Mr Gornall : Yes. That falls back on to the various agents and travel insurance that various countries have. Some are stronger than others and if you don't deliver the product that you have brochured then there are legal ramifications for that.

Senator McCARTHY: Sure. How long had that partnership been going?

Miss Hendy : I believe it was about two or three years. It was quite strong in the beginning and then, as John said, the reliability just was not there towards the end and we tried what we could to keep it going, but unfortunately with the legal ramifications it just wasn't—

Mr Gornall : Quite often it depends on who the coordinator is within the community as to how much it moves and that's across the board in the Territory, whatever we do.

Senator McCARTHY: Is there any suggestion or advice that you could give this committee on how those kinds of relationships could be fostered in a more supportive way the future?

Mr Gornall : I suppose, from our point of view, it's a matter of setting the expectation early. I think for a large organisation like AAT Kings it doesn't always work due to the fact that we are seven days a week, 365 days of the year. That's a big strain on a community so I think that initial discussion and that initial expectation has to be set within the communities. That's because when they first do it all sounds great, but, as we know, everybody gets tired and it's a drain if you only have 10 or 20 people in a community who want to be involved in tourism. At the end of the day in tourism it's pretty hard to put yourself out there day in and day out.

Mr SNOWDON: Do Anangu Tours still operate?

Miss Hendy : I don't believe so.

Mr Gornall : No.

Mr SNOWDON: So there is an issue around capacity for Anangu Tours, not for you, and around developing Anangu Tours or similar organisations so that they have the capacity to be able to service the needs of industry.

Miss Hendy : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: Right.

CHAIR: In relation to meeting the requirements, given that you're a bus company and you travel large distances to go to these places, what is the adequacy of the road and tourism infrastructure? As you go through, I assume you'd be stopping at roadhouses and amenities, et cetera, when you are travelling here. What's the adequacy of all that to meet your needs?

Mr Gornall : They all seem fairly good. Again, it's a matter of setting the expectation for the guest experience. In the Territory there is, obviously, huge travelling. People still come with the concept that the rock is sitting next to Alice and we have to explain that it is 450 kilometres away. In the coach we sit on 100 and we probably stop every two or two and a half hours, on average. That will make an average trip of six hours. Down from Darwin to Katherine and back in a day is 780 kays so that makes for a 14 hour day. Kakadu is 660 kays. So that expectation needs to be managed.

CHAIR: I guess that gets back to this question: most Australians have some sort of concept of the reality of distance—

Senator McCARTHY: Not all of them.

Mr SNOWDON: If they come from Sydney or bloody Melbourne they've got no idea!

CHAIR: What is your percentage of international customers?

Mr Gornall : It is seasonal. But over a 12-month period we are probably about 50 per cent of each.

CHAIR: It is 50 per cent international.

Mr Gornall : Yes. In the dry season, or in our summer, we would have internationals and vice versa.

Mr SNOWDON: So you run a package from Alice to here and back

Mr Gornall : Yes.

Mr SNOWDON: Is that over two days?

Mr Gornall : Over three days.

Miss Hendy : It also goes up to Kings Canyon and things like that.

Mr SNOWDON: Is that well patronised?

Mr Gornall : Not as much as it was because of the airlines. With the airlines not flying into Alice now and more coming in to Yulara, it means that Alice has suffered from tourism numbers.

Mr SNOWDON: We'll get that information I'm sure.

Senator DODSON: I want to ask about demographics and who your travelling public is. Is there a mean age?

Mr Gornall : For AAT Kings, it's probably 40 years old and above.

Senator DODSON: It's more the senior?

Mr Gornall : Yes, it's more the senior and with three-star or four-star accommodation and above.

Mr SNOWDON: Do you run four-wheel drive tours as well?

Mr Gornall : Yes, but not so much down here. They're out of Alice Springs and also out of Darwin.

Mr SNOWDON: What sort of vehicles do you use for those? Do you use Mercedes-Benz or—

Mr Gornall : We're running Mercedes-Benz Axors—they're 24 seaters—and 16-seater Isuzus for Kakadu.

Mr SNOWDON: So these are people who want the swag experience?

Mr Gornall : No, they're still accommodated. We don't go into the camping site anymore. It's more accommodated, but there are longer walks and a bit more swimming or a bit more activity.

Mr SNOWDON: So you don't run one of those vehicles from Alice Springs to Broome, for example, because it's—

Mr Gornall : No, not as a camper. We run them as guided holidays out of Adelaide, up through here, into Alice, up to Darwin, across to Broome and down to Perth.

Senator DODSON: I have a question on your previous comments about Alice Springs appearing to be less favourable to the airline companies and, therefore, there's more road traffic for you guys. Is this a question of how the place was marketed?

Mr Gornall : It's gone up over the years. It's definitely had peaks and troughs. I've been in the industry for nearly 30 years in the Territory now, and it's definitely gone up and down depending on the Ghan, flights, accommodation and availability. It all has an impact—that's for sure.

Miss Hendy : Nowadays, I think it's more to do with the expense of the flights into Alice Springs. Those are the comments that I hear—that it's more expensive to fly into Alice Springs than it is to fly into Yulara.

Mr Gornall : In fact, people drive from Alice Springs to Yulara to catch a plane to go somewhere.

Senator DODSON: I'm wondering about the social image as well, which often impacts on the tourism industry. It's not so much about your internal promotion. It's about the social stigmatisation of these regions. You've had an intervention. You've had terribly adverse comments made about Uluru and about Alice Springs. How much does that really impact on the industry?

Mr Gornall : It would be hard for us to tell you on that side.

Mr SNOWDON: But you'd be able to tell by your numbers over a period. Presumably—

Senator DODSON: You can see the peaks and troughs in your passenger services.

Mr Gornall : Traditionally, for us, I would have been able to tell you what our numbers were in December last year or in January or February. But, over the years, that's all changed, given the internet and given the fact that, if the airlines released a cheap airfare into Darwin or into Uluru tomorrow, our numbers would skyrocket purely over that three-day or four-day long weekend.

Senator DODSON: Again, I'll ask the question in relation to access, because a lot of your product is within national parks et cetera. First of all, I want to know about the relationship with the park and with the management. Are there any difficulties in accessing any of the experiences that you're promoting? Is the range of experiences enough or is there a need for additional access?

Mr Gornall : There could always be a need for additional access. We have good relationships with the parks, and that's across the board. They struggle with the infrastructure. It's nothing for us to have 300 or 400 people at the sunset viewing area. There are no toilets, so that impacts on guest services. I understand the problems behind that, but, as a park that charges a fee, part of that concern is around what we actually give our visitors. But, as far as the road side of life, the roads are good. We get access to where we need. They can certainly do with more maintenance, but that's just part and parcel of being in the Territory.

Mr SNOWDON: In terms of the bigger picture—that is the whole of the Territory and the Top End—what are the major inhibitors to your industry?

Mr Gornall : I suppose, again, it is access into areas. Kakadu would be one of the main ones. We struggle in the wet season. In a big wet you're very limited and you can't get much more than a day out of Kakadu. We spoke about the four-wheel drives. We use the 16-seaters, because they have a 4½ tonne load limit, which gives us access into some areas of Kakadu. We can't take the bigger vehicles, even if we wanted to, as it would break the permit conditions and the access. Down here we have gone to 65-seat vehicles. At the present moment they are fine and we can run that sort of capability. The other vehicles are 58s. We can fill those and run them into the park down here and it's fine. But we struggle in some of the other areas.

Mr SNOWDON: What about getting services for your vehicles?

Mr Gornall : We provide our own.

Mr SNOWDON: You do your own?

Mr Gornall : Yes. You mentioned the industrial zone. We have a depot there and have had now for 28 or 29 years.

Mr SNOWDON: So you do all your mechanical work there?

Mr Gornall : Yes, and we bring everything in that we need.

CHAIR: It is fair to say that one of the other major inhibitors is air access into these areas. That has been a major—

Mr Gornall : Yes. Because they come in in such a short period of time. Basically, everybody flies out in the morning and everybody flies in in the afternoon. So it is a real push in the services, if you like, when everything is happening all at once.

Mr SNOWDON: We have Voyages here. Do your passengers express a view about the accommodation and the services available here? Do they have a positive experience of that?

Mr Gornall : On the whole, it is also a positive experience. I don't think that they always expect to see such a concentration of people in the one area at the one time. So they sometimes struggle with that.

Mr SNOWDON: So there are a few hundred people at the sunset viewing and they thought they were going to be there on their own?

Mr Gornall : Yes, basically.

CHAIR: What about staffing? Others have spoken about issues regarding staff accommodation. Is AAT Kings faced with the same challenges?

Mr Gornall : Yes.

CHAIR: Is that an inhibitor to growth in your business?

Mr Gornall : Yes. At present we lease 63 properties from Voyages and we can't get any more, and we are in discussions with them for our commercial side of life. It is prohibitive when it comes to how much we can grow or how many vehicles we can bring in. When they are full, we're at breaking point.

Mr SNOWDON: Does the remoteness present issues for you?

Mr Gornall : It does. I shift vehicles between Darwin and here. In Darwin's dry season, we take vehicles out of here to go to Darwin and out of Sydney to come into the Territory. In September-October we will bring vehicles back down from Darwin across from Sydney too.

Mr SNOWDON: So fleet management—

Mr Gornall : Yes. We push them all through the Territory as much as we can.

M is s Hendy : And there is also an issue in terms of staff. Getting the staff here and getting people to apply for jobs can be a challenge sometimes.

CHAIR: Thank you very much indeed for coming here today. We appreciate your submission and the information you have provided us. It reinforces some of the other views that have been experienced prior to you appearing. If committee members have any further questions they will fire them off through the secretariat.

I thank all the witnesses for their time today, on a Sunday. It is greatly appreciated. It has been very, very useful. It really sets the tone for the next few days. It has provided us with a lot of information that we can now fire off as we go to Alice and other places in the Northern Territory.

Committee adjourned at 17:49