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

McLENNAN, Mr Ross, Operators Manager/Owner, Hidden Valley Cabins

WOODS, Ms Bridget, Director, Tourism and Events, Townsville Enterprise Ltd


CHAIR: I now call representatives from Townsville Enterprise Ltd. Do you have anything to say about the capacity in which you appear before the committee today?

Ms Woods : Townsville Enterprise is the peak economic development body for the region along with the regional tourism organisation as well. So we operate in both capacities.

Mr McLennan : I come from a local ecotourism business. I was asked to make some comments, I guess, today for you.

CHAIR: These hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament and the giving of false or misleading information or evidence is a serious matter and may be deemed to be a contempt of the parliament. As I indicated, all of these proceedings are recorded by Hansard and attract parliamentary privilege. I invite you to make a brief opening statement and then we will get the committee to fire off some questions.

Ms Woods : Obviously, we have put our submission in. I want to draw your attention to a couple of things within that submission. Firstly, Reef HQ, which I am hoping you are all aware, is the Australian government's national body for education for the Great Barrier Reef. That piece of infrastructure was established in Townsville 30 years ago as a bicentennial project. Since it was built, it has not had significant investment put into it to upgrade the facility. As the national centre for education for the Great Barrier Reef, we believe it is in desperate need of some funds to bring that facility back up to standard again.

CHAIR: The reef headquarters?

Ms Woods : Yes. It is an aquarium. It is the world's largest coral reef aquarium—a living reef aquarium. It is a major attraction for tourists to our region. It is also the education centre. One of the projects in our destination tourism plan is to attract edutourism experiences. It is a big point of difference for our region that we combine tourism with education. Reef HQ is the piece of infrastructure that enables us to really leverage that opportunity. It is in desperate need of some refurbishment. I want to highlight that.

In the submission, we put some information about the way we collect data with the international visitor survey results and the NVS. For Northern Australia, there is a lot of discrepancy in the figures that are given to us to make our decisions based on the size of our population. So we would like the government to consider the methodology around that data collection and event tourism as well. Events are a major attraction, a major way that we bring visitation into our region and entice people to come into the Townsville and North Queensland region. Townsville Enterprise recently commissioned a report with ACON called Barriers to major events in Townsville. This report clearly highlights that big promotors—concert promotors—really do overlook the North for concerts and shows due to the additional costs to get there and the infrastructure here. However, we know that once an event comes into the region, the economic benefits to the community in overnight visitation and retail precincts are significant. Again, I want to highlight that.

We brought Ross along today to talk about our ecotourism opportunities. We see huge potential not just in our region but across the whole of Northern Australia to really capture and capitalise on the beautiful natural attractions that we have in Northern Australia. We have some incredible iconic locations here similar to what you would experience in New Zealand and Tasmania. However, one of the biggest impediments for businesses to access those facilities or to show them to visitors is around land tenure issues for tourism operators to establish a business in those areas. So we do believe there is great opportunity there. However, it is very difficult currently with the framework that we have for tourism operators to look at setting up a business within some of those pristine areas. Wallaman Falls and Hinchinbrook Island are just a couple. They are both World Heritage listed areas, but at the moment big tourism operators are—

CHAIR: So the issue is access to protected areas? Is that a fair—

Mr McLennan : I would go one step further and say it is the allocation of land tenure in these areas. We own a small eco lodge. The only reason we own a small eco lodge in our area is that we actually had what is called an MPHL lease, or a miners perpetual homestead lease, that was freeholded by the Queensland government in the 1990s. From that, we were able to build infrastructure and build a business. We attract sort of five to six—

CHAIR: Is it in a national park or is it within a World Heritage area?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Can you give us an opportunity to tell us about Hidden Valley?

Mr McLennan : You do not know where Hidden Valley is?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I have been there. It is a lovely spot.

CHAIR: The good senator here is from Broome in Western Australia. This gentleman here is from Alice Springs. This one is from Rockhampton. I am from Cairns. I can tell you all the destinations. The only one that would possibly know is our senator for northern Queensland. So do not assume.

Mr McLennan : Obviously my question stands. But I will explain.

CHAIR: I can explain a lot of things.

Mr McLennan : We are an hour and a half north-west of Townsville. It is an 85-square mile cattle lease that surrounds us. We fringe on to the southern entrance to the World Heritage listed wet tropics.

CHAIR: Around Paluma and around that area?

Mr McLennan : Exactly, yes. We are 24 kilometres past Paluma.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You have a dozen little wooden cabins?

Mr McLennan : Yes. A few little wooden cabins. It is a little eco lodge that is fully solar powered. We have won Australian tourism awards for sustainability and hosted accommodation. It has been our family business for about 30 years.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: A wonderful experience.

Mr McLennan : To give you a bit of a brief history, 30 years ago, my father tried to expand the business. It took us about 24 years to purchase some of the surrounding land of our property. This is for a couple of reasons. It is not that it is in a protected area. Obviously, we have just celebrated Mabo Day. Unallocated state land is obviously susceptible to native title. One of the biggest issues that I personally see with native title is the determination of traditional owners. I work very closely with my traditional owners. I have a very good relationship with the Gugu Badhun people from my area. It took them 20 years to be recognised as the traditional owners of our country. After they were determined as the traditional owners for our land, it took us about 18 months to freehold some property around our place. We were the first ecotourism business in Queensland to sign a binding ILUA that was non-financial. In other words, we compensate our traditional owners via in-kind contributions through artwork and employment and so on and so forth. But we did not actually hand over cash, so to speak.

CHAIR: That is not unusual.

Mr McLennan : It is not unusual. In our situation, when I started this process, before we actually had a traditional owner group to deal with, we had to deal with the Native Title Tribunal. We got quotes between $200,000 and $500,000 to put an application in to the Native Title Tribunal to acquire our land with no guarantee of a freeholding outcome. We can talk about developing tourism in these iconic areas until the cows come home, but until we address the issue of land tenure, I honestly do not know how we can do ecotourism in these zones. I guess that is why I asked to come here today.

CHAIR: When you say land tenure, is it native title? Is it access to protected lands through working through the EPA or the national parks or Wet Tropics Management Authority?

Ms Woods : I think it is a combination.

CHAIR: A combination of all those?

Ms Woods : Yes.

Mr McLennan : My father, who is here today, can explain it as well. He originally wanted to build Hidden Valley cabins at Wallaman Falls. In 1991, he put the application in. He had his local member, the member for Hinchinbrook, and some state members on board to do that development. That was stopped because of a number of things. Obviously, the World Heritage listing was coming. We did not know about that at that stage, but it passed through in 1988. Now it has become even more difficult because it is a three-tiered or four-tiered system. You have to deal with the protected area. As ecotourism operators, that is what we want to promote. We do not want to damage these areas. We have to deal with local governments. We have to deal with state governments, particularly around land tenure. As soon as we introduce native title into that situation, we have to obviously deal with federal governments as well as state governments, and that is tricky, to say the least. I would never have gone through the process we went through unless we already had an ecotourism business where we had it. There is no way in the world I could go to a bank and borrow the money today without some kind of land tenure in order to do what I do. The banks just will not look at me.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You have actually got freehold land by arrangement with the local Indigenous people?

Mr McLennan : Yes. We freeholded part of a grazing lease, so we compensated the farmer. We compensated a couple of other people. We compensated some lawyers in Brisbane and Canberra. We have a very good working relationship with our traditional owners.

CHAIR: So you have excised a small portion where you have put your infrastructure on, and that is freehold, within a pastoral lease. Is that correct?

Mr McLennan : That is right. That is what we did, yes.

CHAIR: And how big is the area excised?

Mr McLennan : Eight acres.

CHAIR: That is not uncommon.

Mr McLennan : Out of 50,000.

CHAIR: Lotusbird Lodge is on Violet Vale station up in Cape York. They have about 10 acres that they have excised to build a lodge.

Mr McLennan : You do not need a lot of space for your infrastructure because you want it close by.

CHAIR: But you need security of tenure to be able to.

Mr McLennan : You need security of tenure. There is a number of tourism products in iconic areas that quite simply do not have that. They are operating today like we were, probably illegally, for many years.

CHAIR: But you are different. You were working with the pastoralist. Did you own the pastoral lease?

Mr McLennan : No. I did not own the pastoral lease. I had a farmer to contend with as well.

CHAIR: So there was a pastoralist that owned the lease?

Mr McLennan : That is right.

CHAIR: So you went in there with an arrangement with them. You subleased or made an arrangement—or your father did—to take an eight-acre block out of that?

Mr McLennan : No. Back in the 1980s, if you had the right to mine—so you had—

CHAIR: So you had a mining lease within that pastoral lease?

Mr McLennan : For $7.14, you could go to the lands department and pick out an acre.

CHAIR: I am very familiar with that. I am a pastoral leaseholder myself.

Mr McLennan : Okay. Well, you know what miners did when they come in and pegged out.

CHAIR: I know exactly what you are talking about. That is what I am trying to establish. So you had a mining—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: A mining homestead freehold lease.

CHAIR: A homestead freeholding lease within the pastoral lease.

Mr McLennan : That is right.

CHAIR: Okay. And it was eight acres?

Mr McLennan : It was one acre.

CHAIR: One acre. But you extended it to eight?

Mr McLennan : Yes. The long story short is we bought the road beside us, got the land surveyed and found out that our cabins were three metres off the surveyed land. We were on a pastoral lease. We went to the lands department, which said, 'You have to extinguish native title.' It took us 21 years.

CHAIR: So there are those challenges there. You also talked about Hinchinbrook and others, such as Paluma, if there was something in there, or Wallaman. This would be working within protected areas. I assume that there are significant challenges in getting approvals from these authorities?

Ms Woods : Hinchinbrook Island, for example, has a Hinchinbrook Island management plan. Currently, as that management plan stands, you cannot obtain a permit to operate a commercial business on Hinchinbrook Island.

CHAIR: How long has that management plan been in existence?

Ms Woods : I could not tell you the number of years, but I think it is more than 10.

CHAIR: This is something from the committee perspective we should be focussing on. We have had a lot of evidence in relation to GBRMPA, who have management plans that were established 25 years ago and are used as an absolute rock solid barrier to any flexibility, any changes, anything at all, and to a point where it is actually—

Ms Woods : Not workable.

CHAIR: Shut businesses down.

Ms Woods : Yes. The management plan was updated last year, so it has recently been updated. I think the final was through in November. Prior to November, only one commercial operator was allowed to transport people from the mainland to Hinchinbrook Island to do the walk. Hinchinbrook Island has one of the great eight walks of the world. It is an iconic walking location. To access it, if you are a tourist, you have to get a national parks permit. You need to understand how you get the boat transfer from the little town of Lucinda to the island. There is nobody on the island to help you if you get into trouble. Basically you take everything on and everything off, which is okay. But if we are wanting to take tourism—

CHAIR: No. It is not okay.

Ms Woods : If you want to take tourism to the next level, we should have a commercial operator there doing guided tours and showing people. They would also obviously contribute to the maintenance of the island and be able to report back to national parks. So currently that is not allowed.

CHAIR: As we were going around, we identified originally in the Northern Australia white paper that there are challenges in relation to native title issues. A lot of those challenges involve working against the interests of the traditional owners. They are definitely trying to find a resolution. The process prevents them from having an outcome.

Mr McLennan : We agreed with our traditional owners. Our traditional owners agreed with us. Our two lawyers could not agree on the wording of the ILUA. It was—

CHAIR: This was identified as an issue back the white paper was first released. It clearly is a problem that continues.

Mr McLennan : My traditional owners could not even get it.

CHAIR: The point I am making is that we had evidence right across the country from traditional owners and Aboriginal groups expressing their frustration at the lack of opportunities to express their own views or have their views considered in relation to doing this. So that is the first problem. The second problem, which is very consistent, is access to protected areas for small commercial operations. There seems to be almost a stone wall there. The natural areas that people want to come and see are locked.

Ms Woods : They cannot access; that is right.

CHAIR: Yesterday, we talked to National Parks, for example. They have been handed over to traditional owners. The traditional owners are told what they can do in relation to their natural management, but they cannot get a permit to actually operate a small business within that area.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: With their own land.

Mr McLennan : To build infrastructure.

CHAIR: To build infrastructure.

Mr McLennan : That is the key. You cannot build infrastructure.

CHAIR: So you are confirming exactly?

Ms Woods : Yes.

CHAIR: Is it fair to say that that is going to be a serious impediment to the development of natural assets and for the presentation here?

Ms Woods : Yes.

Mr McLennan : Unless you have someone with so much money that they do not need to borrow any or anything like that, it is impossible—

CHAIR: And can afford to wait for how many years?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Twenty-four.

Mr McLennan : Too many.

CHAIR: Tell me how many years.

Mr McLennan : The first application was 1993. We finished in 2012, I think it was. In December.

CHAIR: That is not too bad. It is only 20-something years. You have done exceptionally well.

Mr McLennan : With all due respect, too, everyone that I have told this story to has laughed. One thing it is not—

CHAIR: It is not a laughing matter.

Mr McLennan : It is not a laughing matter for anyone involved.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: We have these wonderful natural assets. Unless you are prepared to crawl through the grass, you cannot see them.

Ms Woods : You have to remember that you are talking about small tourism operators, who are passionate about the tourism industry and often do not have the skill set to go and get the lawyers or the advice that is required in order for them to go through this process. They switch off because that is not the sort of people they are. If we are serious about developing tourism in the north, we need to address these issues. We have some of the most pristine natural environment in the world right here on our doorstep, and we are not making it easy for visitors to access those areas.

CHAIR: When you are talking about exploitation, all you are wanting to do basically is to present?

Ms Woods : It is. The operators understand that they need to be respectful to the environment, because if they are not, they do not have a business. Ross's business only exists because of the way he cares for the environment. That is the same with anybody who works in that ecotourism space. That is their main priority.

Mr McLennan : I think, too, the big thing about these areas that are locked up is there has been some disturbance there over the last 200 years—logging, infrastructure, roads, and so on and so forth. So we are not talking about going and putting infrastructure in the most pristine pocket of a gully where there is a primitive plant. We are talking about areas that have already got disturbance and that have been subject to weed infestation that we can beautify again. We see a lot of that on the Atherton Tablelands—beautiful rehabilitation areas and things like that. We are not talking about going in and ruining areas. We are talking about just getting some land allocated for tourism like it is allocated for other industries.

Ms Woods : I heard you mention Palm Island earlier. Palm Island obviously is within our RTA area as well, so we do look after and work with the community there when it comes to tourism opportunities. I guess there are a lot of misconceptions around cultural experiences that are available on Palm Island. Currently, there is no tourism product there. The community in the past have been quite divided over whether they want tourism on the island, which is why it has taken such a long time to get them to a point where they might be able to consider a tourism opportunity. Are you all familiar with the history of Palm Island?

CHAIR: I am. Pretty much, yes.

Ms Woods : You have a number of tribes all in the one spot and they often cannot agree. A number of the tribes want tourism, and then there is still—

Senator DODSON: Well, they are taken there.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: They are horse led by government policies.

Mr SNOWDON: They are language groups.

CHAIR: They are language groups rather than tribal groups, yes.

Ms Woods : They have not been able to come to an agreement whether they want to welcome other people to their island. Tourism and Events Queensland are working very closely with the island as well, with some of the community leaders there, to look at new tourism product. We are starting with a small event next year with the community. Obviously next year is their 100-year celebration to commemorate the establishment of the island.

Mr SNOWDON: There is nothing to celebrate.

Ms Woods : There will be a didgeridoo festival held there to break the Guinness world records for the most didgeridoos being played at one time. So they are taking very small steps to develop tourism product there. There is, I guess, a huge amount of stakeholder engagement that needs to happen in order for that product to be developed.

CHAIR: We were talking earlier to the Townsville port authority. One of the questions asked related to the number of tourism experiences accessible to large numbers of people coming off these vessels. The number of ships has gone from four to 11 and is going to go to 18. It is expected to grow even significantly more. I noticed on here that there is no Townsville tourism body.

Ms Woods : That is who we are.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: TEL does Townsville tourism.

CHAIR: I am just making the point that I noticed there were none. I was told that you guys cover tourism as well—

Ms Woods : Yes.

CHAIR: as part of your ambit. What sort of process do you have, given that there is a shortage of tourism product in the area? The comment was made, 'Well, we don't need to be building large Taj Mahals.' In response, I said, 'That's right. But cultural and Indigenous tourism is a big issue. And natural tourism. It is a big drawcard, particularly for international visitors. A large number of those who come on these are international visitors. What is being done to develop them to meet the expected very significant growth? It is all ready if you have people dribbling through. When you get boats with 3,000 or 4,000 people disembarking for a day, how do you accommodate their needs so that when they go back and fill in the exit survey, they say, 'We've had a fabulous time. We recommend you come back?'

Ms Woods : Currently we do have Mungalla, which is an Indigenous experience just north of us in the Hinchinbrook region. It is an incredible Indigenous experience. We are working with a number of Indigenous groups at the moment looking at new opportunities for them for tourism product. They need a lot of support to establish their business. When we are talking group and ad hoc experiences, it is challenging. Obviously, we can give them dates they need to work towards to establish those experiences, but it is a growing market. It is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. We need to have the product developed in order to present to the cruise ships, but we do not have the volumes of people coming through currently to support, I guess, the free independent traveller style, which enables them to get ready, I guess, for a larger group. So it is definitely a process that we are going through. We have at AIMS, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, a site that has incredible Indigenous paintings on the walls. We are trying to work with the Indigenous group there to take passengers off that experience.

CHAIR: Do the interpretation there?

Ms Woods : Yes. So that people can go and see those paintings and get a bush tucker experience and then go on and have lunch at another property.

CHAIR: Is there anything that can or needs to be done to support the endeavours to make these things happen?

Ms Woods : Yes. The federal government currently operates a fund for tourism demand. It is the driver infrastructure fund. Queensland, as you would probably be aware, is the only state, to my understanding, that has it for soft infrastructure. For the other states, it is all about hard infrastructure. For our state, there is a soft infrastructure fund as well. That fund is given to QTIC to manage, and then it is distributed to the RTOs. It is a capabilities and, I guess, industry development fund. Previously, Tourism and Events Queensland used to be responsible for industry development. Now QTIC and that fund is responsible. So they are the funds that we use. We have a very small amount.

CHAIR: What about the Northern Australia tourism development fund? Are you aware of that one?

Ms Woods : No.

CHAIR: It is a fund where it is a dollar for dollar investment from the federal government. You have to be a business generating in excess of $750,000.

Ms Woods : Yes. I do know that one.

CHAIR: Do many of your tourism members access that fund? Do you believe that the $750,000 starting point would be a disincentive for many of your small or microbusinesses that are looking to grow to meet the market?

Ms Woods : Absolutely. Especially if we are talking about new tourism products. For our region, with Indigenous tourism, except for Mungalla and Hinchinbrook, we have no other Indigenous offering. So that fund is completely out for them because they are not actually operating at the moment. So if we are talking about helping support new businesses to establish, that one is—

CHAIR: Are you aware of any business in the Townsville area that has actually accessed that fund?

Ms Woods : I think SeaLink looked at it.

CHAIR: We will ask them. But you are not aware of any yourself, are you?

Ms Woods : No. We certainly had a number of consultations with all of our tourism members, and somebody from the office came and spoke to them about the fund.

CHAIR: I will step out and then I will ask the deputy to take over. This is my last question. You mentioned at the beginning the reef headquarters and the aquarium. My understanding is that it only has a very limited life left. It really needs to be rebuilt. It is on its last legs. Is that correct?

Ms Woods : The aquarium itself is pristine. It is just the infrastructure surrounding it. The building, yes.

CHAIR: The infrastructure is just about buggered, yes.

Ms Woods : It is a huge drawcard for our region. If we were to lose that, it would be devastating.

CHAIR: Would anybody privately be willing to invest? Cairns has just about finished one there now. It was built almost exclusively with private money. It is going to be one of the three biggest ones in the southern hemisphere. So there is competition there.

Ms Woods : Yes.

CHAIR: Are there opportunities here for private enterprise or public-private investment?

Ms Woods : I think there would be. The crucial thing to remember here is that one of the biggest benefits of our aquarium here is that it is the Australian government's national education centre for the Great Barrier Reef. Having the Australian government attached to it is our point of difference for our region. One of the things that we do very differently to the Cairns region and the Whitsundays region is that we offer educational tourism experiences. If it was an aquarium that was not focussed on education, it would be a very different offering.

CHAIR: This is the challenge you have there. The one that they have built there is very much an education one. It is absolutely, totally focussed on education. They spent a fortune in developing that element of it. I do not know what it would cost to refurbish the one down here. Have you got any idea on what the costs would be?

Ms Woods : I think it needs around $10 million.

CHAIR: Because they spent about $50 million-something up there. I just say that as a point of interest. I am not too sure whether there would be an appetite to build, from a government perspective, or rebuild another aquarium when it may well be able to be done privately.

Ms Woods : I think the thing to remember, however, is that Townsville has James Cook University here, which is the world's leading university in marine sciences. We have AIMS, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, also focussed on maintaining the reef. Townsville is the hub of knowledge for the Great Barrier Reef. That education centre is a government facility. I think it would be a huge mistake to remove the government tagline from that facility.

CHAIR: I am not saying that that would happen. Since it was built, of course, Cairns has now become a big JCU and CQU hub as well.

Ms Woods : Yes.

CHAIR: So there is competition there that needs to be considered when you say, 'Well, we need it to be redone here.'

Ms Woods : Look, with all due respect to the facility built in Cairns, the education offering there is very different to the education offering here at our aquarium. The aquarium here runs a reef guardian program. They have a schools program. The engagement within the schools here is huge. They do live feeding all around the world, so they take the reef to schools all over the world. It is much more. I think it would be worth your time to go and have a look.

CHAIR: I have been through it many times.

Ms Woods : But probably to understand all the education programs that they run, which to my understanding is not happening with the facility in Cairns. Yes, there is an educational component in the facility in Cairns, but it is not to the level that we operate here in our region currently.

CHAIR: That will be interesting to see, yes. Has anybody got any other questions?

Senator DODSON: Someone raised with us the other day the notion, I think, of the citizens of the Great Barrier Reef. Do they play a role in assisting, I suppose, the facility you have? Given that their role seems to be to help promote the reef and look after it and all those things, are they connected in any way to this?

Ms Woods : To Reef HQ?

Senator DODSON: Yes.

Ms Woods : No. Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef was started by the former CEO of TTNQ, Alex de Waal. He started Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef in response to all of the negative comments around the Great Barrier Reef regarding coral bleaching. It is a great initiative on his behalf to kick that off. It is really getting people to post pictures of the reef and raise awareness of the issues of the reef and let people know that the reef is still alive and still going. It is a promotional arm. Obviously they are fundraising as well. They are fundraising in order to fund different projects. It is very different to what Reef HQ do.

CHAIR: It is based in Cairns.

Ms Woods : Yes.

CHAIR: And it is based on the gateway to the reef.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: There are a lot of foundations. There is the Virginia Chadwick Memorial Foundation. There is another private enterprise. There are a lot of them around—in fact, probably too many.

CHAIR: With respect, I think that the Citizens will hit it right on the mark in international engagement and education rather than a lot of the scaremongering.

Ms Woods : I guess it is education in a different sense. However, it is education for leisure tourists. It is basically showing people that the reef is still there. You can take your pictures and post them up. It is live feeds. It is all those sorts of things. They talk about different research projects that are happening on the reef. The citizens are working their way down. They are very well established in Cairns, but they are yet to establish themselves in the other regions on the Great Barrier Reef. So we are still, I guess, working with them to understand how all of the other regions on the Great Barrier Reef can be involved.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I want to go back to your submission. Thanks for your submission. I am a member of the TEL and have been for 30 years now, so I am well aware of what you do. In your submission, in relation to our terms of reference regarding impediments and challenges, you list a lot of dot points. I agree with all of them. They are all issues which are really not for governments to solve. They are really commercial activities. In raising them, do you do no more than simply alert the committee to those challenges? You are not suggesting there are any solutions that governments can do?

Ms Woods : I guess the primary one is around the investment in infrastructure for the tourism industry. We put that there has been no significant investment in tourism infrastructure in more than 25 years, be it for roads for national parks, signage and all those sorts of things. Magnetic Island, for example, still does not have a welcome entrance to the island to show that it is a tourism destination. It looks like any other ferry terminal and could be a wharf in Brisbane. So it really is to highlight that this region used to have a very strong tourism industry. We had a stronger tourism industry than Cairns 25 years ago and we let it go. So the opportunity is there for us to be a great tourism destination. However, we need some infrastructure in order to get it happening again.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Infrastructure. But no significant tourism infrastructure?

Ms Woods : You are right. The commercial—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Air connections and a commercial convention centre. Hopefully it should be commercial in terms of limited international recognition by brand name hotels. Again, they are issues that I know Townsville Enterprise is working on. But it has to come from within.

Ms Woods : There need to be commercial operators involved with all of those points that we have listed there. I could not agree more.

CHAIR: You have raised a point there. You said that the aviation committee is working with the Townsville airport and key stakeholders in targeting domestic and international routes. You have a White and Great Boat Attraction Committee working towards boosting the visits. What sort of recommendations are coming from these committees? What are they undertaking to do at the moment to assist in achieving those outcomes? What progress are you making?

Ms Woods : With the Aviation Attraction Committee, our initial primary focus was to reinstate Townsville's international status, which we have now achieved. We have direct flights to Bali and Port Moresby now with connections through to Hong Kong. That committee continues to work on the next international connections, which in our mind are New Zealand and Singapore. We also are looking at our domestic connectivity as well. Townsville still faces challenges with connections to the capital cities. We have fewer connections to Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne than our neighbour to the north, Cairns. So access into our region is one of the biggest reasons why we do not have more commercial operators established here.

In some respects, we are stuck in a chicken and egg scenario. We have hoteliers looking at building new hotels in the regions, but they look at the connections and the demand, and the demand is not there yet. We have the airlines saying, 'We want to see new tourism infrastructure before we put on new routes for you.' So we are stuck in that chicken and egg scenario. We did work very closely with the state government last year to use funds from the aviation attraction fund for a new domestic route for Townsville, a Tiger flight direct between Melbourne and Townsville. They did bend the rules for our region to access those funds. Before that, it was obviously just for international connections. But this is a strategic opportunity for us to establish Tiger's brand in our region, which hopefully then will see us using them for some connections into Asia in the future.

We are meeting with Qantas very shortly—next week—to look at pricing structure and their commitment to Northern Australia. We do see big problems with the airlines when they are looking at the routes between Townsville and the capital cities. The prices that we pay for air connection here are much higher than in Cairns, obviously because the demand is not as strong. We need to work with the airlines to look at that because it affects our tourism abilities. People are not going to pay. Our brand recognition for Townsville is not as strong as the Cairns region. Add an additional cost in airfares from Sydney or Melbourne to come to Townsville on top of that and that is one of the biggest things that is holding us back and why we are having trouble attracting commercial operators to establish new businesses here. I receive an amount of inquiries through our office from hoteliers wanting to come to Townsville and build a new hotel. They then dig down into the detail. The convention centre is the primary asset that we need to happen.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Where is that at?

Ms Woods : The business case is being done at the moment. Obviously, it is in the city deals. It is a commitment through the city deals. We do have a business case there, but we are revisiting that at the moment in light of the stadium being built. Obviously, the council have allocated land for the convention centre. But that segment of the market—that meetings, industries and convention business—is the cream for hoteliers and airlines. Obviously, we are the largest city in Northern Australia and we cannot hold a conference here at the moment for more than 700 people. That is really, I think, very embarrassing.

CHAIR: Well, you have an issue, too, in relation to accommodation and hotels.

Ms Woods : Yes. Our hoteliers are experiencing probably one of the lowest REVPARs, which is the revenue per available room metric used in the hotel industry. We have one of the lowest in Australia here in Townsville. Our hotel industry is struggling, hence the investment back into the properties. So owners' investments back into their infrastructure is not there at the moment because they cannot afford to, basically. So, again, we are stuck in this chicken and egg scenario. We know that our hotels need to raise our standards, but they are not generating the revenue required in order for the owners to justify that spend.

CHAIR: You mentioned in your submission the lack of brand hotels in Townsville, which of course is a serious challenge for you.

Ms Woods : Yes.

CHAIR: How do you attract one without the other?

Ms Woods : In our mind, it is the reason why we are pushing so hard to find a proponent and government support for the convention centre. Again, that MICE section of the market is, I guess, the cream for all hotels.

CHAIR: There used to be a direct flight from here to Canberra. I think it was Virgin.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes. It was Virgin from here to Canberra.

CHAIR: I am curious to see why it did not work.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I can tell you perhaps more than TEL. There were no passengers on it apart from me and you and James, which is amazing, because this is a town with a university, the Commonwealth tax office, GBRMPA, AIMS and all these Commonwealth agencies. If ever there was a flight that should have succeeded, it was that. But it was a funny business at the crossroads, I think.

Ms Woods : From a regional airline perspective, there is another challenge for prices. For smaller airlines like Airnorth, Alliance and some of those smaller brands in regional Australia, the biggest segment of the market of any travel group is government travel. We look at both state and federal government. That is the account that any airline wants to have. In Queensland, one of the biggest challenges for the regional airlines is that government personnel will not travel on their routes because they do not get the frequent flyer points and they are not aligned to the frequent flyer program. So state government can choose. I believe that in federal government you do not get the points. But with state government travel, the travellers will align to a frequent flyer system.

CHAIR: But it was a Virgin flight, so they would have got frequent flyers, if they were able to access them.

Ms Woods : The Canberra scenario is a different scenario. It was possibly before my time.

CHAIR: I am just curious. It is important. I understand the need for connectivity. But, having said that, there also has to be bums on seats.

Ms Woods : That is right. It has to be commercially viable.

CHAIR: Otherwise, they will not support it.

Ms Woods : It comes down to the time of day the service is operating. It comes down to the price that is being charged. Is it competitive? That is why we need to retain our smaller airlines like Airnorth and Alliance. If we were to lose them from our region, the price of Qantas and Virgin would go through the roof and we would be in a lot of trouble. But those airline routes are in jeopardy at the moment because they are not getting the support from the government with their travel. So it is a big issue and a challenge for us at the moment.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: When will the business case for the convention centre be made public?

Ms Woods : It is in the hands of the council at the moment.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It is finished, is it?

Ms Woods : My understanding is it is. But I have not seen it.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Did you do that? Did TEL do that?

Ms Woods : No. The council are working on that, yes.

Senator DODSON: I am a Western Australian. Is this the home of the Cowboys?

Ms Woods : Yes, it is.

Senator DODSON: I have not heard a word about the Cowboys. I would have thought they were a huge attraction in this region.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: They thrashed Canberra last week, if you want to hear about the Cowboys.

Senator DODSON: But the point is that it attracts tourism to this place.

Ms Woods : Yes.

Senator DODSON: In massive numbers, yet we have not heard about it. We have not heard anything about it, as one of the iconic teams across Australia in that week.

Ms Woods : I guess because we work so well with the Cowboys. We have a great relationship with the Cowboys. We had them featured in our latest commercial that we did for the region. The Cowboys were featured in that. We have a really good working relationship with the Cowboys.

Mr SNOWDON: They are an asset, are they not?

Ms Woods : Absolutely.

Mr SNOWDON: But you are the second group of witnesses we have had this morning and we have had to ask the question about whether the Cowboys are an asset.

Ms Woods : I guess that all of the events in our region we consider an asset. I did touch on the events to our region. Events are absolutely crucial—

Mr SNOWDON: You are building a stadium worth tens of millions of dollars.

Ms Woods : Yes. It is a $250 million stadium.

Mr SNOWDON: There are huge tourism spin-offs as a result of it. What are the multipliers?

Ms Woods : I guess it depends. At the moment, we are working very closely with Stadiums Queensland to look at the content for the stadium, because we absolutely recognise that it is more than just the 12 games of football per year that the Cowboys bring. It is about that other content. We have a committee set up with Stadiums Queensland to look at that content for the stadium.

Mr SNOWDON: Has there been any economic analysis done of the impact of the Cowboys on the town in terms of tourism?

Ms Woods : Not specifically for tourism. But for the Cowboys overall? Yes, there has.

Senator DODSON: We have two teams in Perth—the Eagles and Freo. I think there is a lot of rivalry that goes on. They attract a lot of people into the city. If the accommodation and the facility are going to be built, what would attract people to come to Townsville?

Mr SNOWDON: He is asking the question.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I thought he had finished. I was going to help him answer.

Senator DODSON: You obviously have rivalry with Cairns over a range of similar things. We have heard about the aquarium. Obviously, there are competitions around that. What would attract people to Townsville as opposed to Cairns?

Ms Woods : Events are a huge part of what we use to drive visitation into our region. So we have a whole event marketing strategy in place. Things like the—

Mr SNOWDON: There is the car race this weekend.

Ms Woods : Yes. The Supercars. We have the Australian festival—

Mr SNOWDON: That is the first time I have heard about that today.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: We did not hear about the Taipans in Cairns.

Mr SNOWDON: When I drove out here this morning—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You do not list all the things that are coming to town.

Senator DODSON: I am not criticising.

Ms Woods : I can go through all the events, if you like.

Mr SNOWDON: An interesting question is: what are your occupancy rates at the moment?

Ms Woods : For this week, they are the highest. This is the price at the moment, yes.

Mr SNOWDON: So what are the peaks and troughs in demand for accommodation as a result of these events?

Ms Woods : They are huge. That is why we market the city on events. We have a whole event attraction program in place.

Mr SNOWDON: So over the 12 months, how many down cycles are there as a result of no major event? If the Cowboys are not playing this weekend, you have the car race, so that is going to fill the accommodation. Are they playing here the following weekend?

Ms Woods : I am not sure of the schedule.

Mr SNOWDON: It would be interesting just to understand how the volume of people coming into the place varies over the 12-month period.

Ms Woods : Yes. We have graphs for all of that.

Mr SNOWDON: Could you provide us with that information, please?

Ms Woods : Yes.

Mr McLennan : I think one of the things that Bridget did say right at the start, too, was that the data collection of these things and the way that the data is collected is not great. When you want that data, it can skew either way. As an operator, I do not even look at it, to be 100 per cent honest with you. It is a waste of time. We can give you the data to make it look as good or bad as you want.

Ms Woods : I can give you data on hotel specific stats. It is only for hotels. There is a program called STR Global, which all of the hotels input into. Well, it is not all of the hotels. Twenty-three hotels input into that program. So we can give you exact figures for the 23 hotels.

Mr SNOWDON: If the Cowboys are playing the Broncos—

Ms Woods : I think we need to remember that is only 12 weekends a year, 12 nights a year.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: A lot of it is internal. There is not a lot of people come from out of town.

Mr SNOWDON: The question I am about to ask is: when you have a major game like the Broncos and the Cowboys, how many visitors come along? How many visitors normally would you expect into the town as a result of that game?

Ms Woods : Normally about 40 per cent of the visitation depends on the game. The Broncos and Cowboys is obviously the biggest game of the year. So 40 per cent of the attendees will be from out of town.

Mr SNOWDON: So how many do we normally get to attend?

Ms Woods : Again, it depends. So for the Cowboys game, maybe 20,000.

Mr SNOWDON: So about 8,000 people visiting that weekend?

Ms Woods : Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: But, again, out of town includes Ayr, where I come from, and most of them would drive home after the game.

Ms Woods : Our drive zones will be there.

Mr SNOWDON: I understand that. If we want to understand what the impact is, we need to understand—

Ms Woods : The impact of events in general or the impact of just the Cowboys?

Mr SNOWDON: These specific events over the 12-month period. You say they are only here for 12 weeks.

Ms Woods : We collect data. For any of the major events we work with that are funded by Tourism and Events Queensland or we provide funding for, we collect data on every single event—where the people came from and how many people came into the region. That is why we have employed such a strong events strategy moving forward. We see events as a key driver of tourism for our region. That is why I mentioned in my opening comments that we contracted ACON to look at why we are not getting the bigger events. We have a lot of events that attract between 2,000 and 5,000 people. We are looking for some of those big ticket events—some of the big concerts and shows—but we currently are not in a position to attract them. When the new stadium comes in, that will help us.

The infrastructure we have for major events is not at the standard it needs to be. The cost of getting a show to a regional town is much higher than putting on a second show in Brisbane. The Northern Territory government does it very well. They subsidise. They have a travel subsidy for their big shows and concerts. They subsidise all of the freight to get the equipment up to Darwin. Currently in Queensland we do not have a mechanism to do that, which is something that we want to explore for the new stadium with the state government.

Mr SNOWDON: Thank you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: The big shows in town in this city are the V8 Supercars and the Festival of Chamber Music, both of which are international events.

Ms Woods : Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: What do they draw to the town? Do you have those figures off the top of your head?

Ms Woods : Yes. The V8s is around 90,000 people and about a $20 million economic return to the city over the three days that that event is on. The Australian Festival of Chamber Music is about 9,900 room nights. That festival does not have 9,900 people, but it generates about 9,000 room nights because it is a 10-day festival. We have other ones, like the running festival, which is around 2,000 people, and the tri festival, which is about 4,000 people for adventure fun.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: The convention centre seems to be the thing that is sadly lacking in this town.

Ms Woods : Absolutely.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Cairns has the same. They have the Taipans basketball, which is very good. Again, it only attracts the local people.

Ms Woods : Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: But Cairns has a very good convention centre.

Ms Woods : They held the Australian Tourism Exchange in Cairns. We could never dream of holding an event like that because we do not have the facility to do that.

ACTING CHAIR ( Mr Snowdon ): Thank you. That is great. Thank you very much. You will make available that data?

Ms Woods : I will send you a calendar that has all of our events for the year on it. It has the spectator visitation for each event.

ACTING CHAIR: That would be great.

Ms Woods : Who do I send it to?

ACTING CHAIR: To the secretary of the committee. Thank you. Provide it to the secretariat by 21 July.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Ross, thanks for coming, and well done.

ACTING CHAIR: You will get a copy of the Hansard to proof. Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 10.36 to 10.48