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

BEVERIDGE, Mr Frank, Acting Chair, Northern RDA Alliance

SCHUNTNER, Ms Glenys, Chief Executive Officer, Regional Development Australia Townsville and North West Queensland Inc


CHAIR: I welcome representatives from the Northern RDA Alliance. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear today.

Ms Schuntner : I am helping to represent our Northern RDA Alliance colleagues across the north.

CHAIR: These hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be treated as a contempt of parliament. The evidence, as I indicated, is recorded by Hansard and, as such, it attracts parliamentary privilege. I invite you to make a short and brief opening statement, and then we can fire off with some questions.

Ms Schuntner : Thank you. I prepared a statement of about four minutes. It is basically expanding upon our submission rather than repeating what is within that submission. On behalf of all the Regional Development Australia committees that work across Northern Australia and collaborators, the Northern RDA Alliance wish to thank you for the opportunity to appear before your committee hearing today. The Northern RDA Alliance has worked closely with the federal government to support the white paper on developing Northern Australia in the implementation and promotion of its key initiatives in accordance with our charter to provide advice to the government on cross-regional economic development issues and opportunities, facilitate local engagement on economic development priorities and lead and contribute to economic development initiatives to develop sustainable communities. In our opening statement, we wish to make comments that expand upon the submission that we made to the inquiry in March. These relate to the economic employment value of tourism, tourism infrastructure, air routes and drive tourism routes.

Firstly, we wish to note and recognise the importance of the tourism industry to the north and the significant opportunities that the tourism industry offers to the north's sustainable development, including new investment into businesses and the creation of employment. While statistics on tourism in Northern Australia are patchy, we note that the economic contribution of tourism using gross value added figures are of the following nature. The Northern Territory is worth $2.2 billion; Western Australia tourism contributes $10.64 billion; and, in Queensland, tourism contributes $22.5 billion.

With regard to employment, over 350,000 people are directly and indirectly employed through tourism industries in these three jurisdictions. While these statistics are for the states and territory as a whole, they reflect the importance of tourism and its economic contribution and, most importantly, its ability to create and sustain employment in regional centres and rural and remote communities, many of which are urgently seeking economic diversification opportunities to create jobs for youth in particular. As you will be aware, regional Australia is experiencing very high youth unemployment. As an example from our own region, in outback Queensland, youth unemployment has reached 48 per cent.

Secondly, we wish to expand upon the shortfall of private and public sector investment into tourism related product and infrastructure. As an example of the challenges we face in developing the north, I note that our Northern RDA Alliance has experience in supporting the Developing Northern Australia Conference organised by the Association for Sustainability in Business. Participants in this annual conference are key players and supporters of development in the north. The first three conferences were held in Townsville, Cairns and Darwin. We would like to take the conference to northern WA. However, there are no towns that can host a conference of 400 people. History has shown that governments and all levels of government—

Mr SNOWDON: What was that last bit?

Ms Schuntner : We are having trouble finding a town that can host a conference of 400 people in north Western Australia basically with the access, the accommodation and the conference facilities.

CHAIR: So places like Kununurra?

Ms Schuntner : Kununurra, Broome.

CHAIR: Cannot do it?

Ms Schuntner : That is right.

CHAIR: Cannot do it?

Ms Schuntner : Cannot do it. So it is a major impediment to growing the northern—

CHAIR: That is your fault, Warren.

Mr Snowdon interjecting

Senator DODSON: We have taken advantage of investment in the west.

Ms Schuntner : Well, we have shown—and our history shows—that all levels of government have been the major investors into conferences and convention facilities because they play a really broad role in economic contribution locally, not just for one operator. I highlight that as a recent example we have experienced in the last few weeks alone. We also recommend to governments to play a proactive role to encourage partnerships in investment into the critical infrastructure of these conferencing and convention facilities and attract the associated accommodation requirements. Much of that could be driven by government and the local community. It is not just about government money. It is also about how we attract the private sector investment to be partners in that development. For example, smaller towns would benefit from conference facilities for 200 to 400 people and larger cities would benefit from larger convention centres that can attract larger numbers—for example, about 1,000 to 5,000 people.

In relation to transport infrastructure and encouraging tourism in the north, air access and affordability are key issues. It is often cheaper to travel to Europe and back than it is to travel within Northern Australia. Today I checked the flight details. To book return flights from Broome to Cairns for a trip one month in advance would cost $1,389. Travel would be via Perth and Brisbane to get to Cairns and via Gove and Darwin to get back. I believe other witnesses have raised the issues of air access and affordability. To hold, for example, a business tourism conference in Northern Australia, there is a risk of a financial loss for organisers due to flight costs, making participation prohibitively expensive. Similarly, a holiday for a family to Northern Australia would usually be far more expensive than other holiday options. A lack of direct air routes between major cities and towns is also an impediment to connecting people to do business and generally help grow the north. We recommend that all governments play a proactive role to encourage partnerships in investment into air route development for not only the benefits to tourism but also businesses, government and not-for-profit service delivery and local communities to enhance the liveability of our remote communities.

I understand that road infrastructure was discussed with the previous witness. It is something that is very close to our heart. We have previously presented to the standing committee on the Inland Queensland Roads Action Plan. Over the past 18 months, we have continued to proceed with this project and have enjoyed the opportunity to present to you. Further to that, we would like to highly recommend consideration of developing a beef roads equivalent for the tourism industry—a tourism roads program. Rural and regional tourism relies heavily on drive tourism, with tourists either driving into the region or flying and then hiring a car. The point about the grey nomad market came up before. They are certainly a very significant part of the drive tourism market in the north and provide significant opportunities for further growth.

Regional tourism, businesses and jobs can be developed by improving the quality and safety of existing drive tourism routes. We could open up new routes by sealing the current dirt roads on key routes, offering potential for development. In IQR, we reference and prioritise routes such as the Savannah Way from Broome to Cairns, the Outback Way from Laverton in WA to Winton in Queensland and the Overlanders Way from Townsville to Tennant Creek as great examples of northern drive routes. We also recognise the importance of the south to north routes that connect tourists to destinations such as the Matilda and Great Inland ways.

Recent experience has also shown the importance of the connectivity of a road network between towns and airports. In the Whitsundays area, Airlie Beach was cut off from its airport due to flooding. This impeded not only access for people to get in and out of the town for tourism, but of course the delivery of emergency services in the recovery period.

In closing, we note our recommendations in the full submission, including the formation of a Northern Australia tourism advisory group, and would be pleased to answer any questions you may have and expand on any points in the submission. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. I have a quick question on the last point you made. You were here when the previous witness gave evidence about a central coordinating agency for tourism development in Northern Australia. You are suggesting a similar sort of thing. There are mature tourism markets—for example, Cairns, Port Douglas and the Whitsundays—that probably would get no benefit from that. However, there is a lot of space in between right across the Northern Australian spectrum, where people could opt in to be part of that to give them direction or markets. What are your thoughts on that?

Ms Schuntner : Certainly I believe there is an opportunity for collaboration to grow the pie. I think the previous speaker mentioned that opportunity to grow the pie. At the moment, the current structures with state tourism organisations and regional tourism organisations and right down to local tourism organisations really are established and do a great job in their space. Often they are set up to compete with each other for the tourists. I think greater collaboration across the north could lead to further discussion about how we grow the pie and distribute tourism more widely. Exactly on your point, gateways like Cairns and Townsville can be great distributors to send tourists further west to rural and remote communities. We have a number of hubs and gateways that I think can be utilised to share the load and share people out across the region.

To support that, I think, by having a Northern Australia tourism advisory group or a similar type of group, we can look at ways to effect that. I think we can draw on expertise from people in the STOs and RTOs, and we can draw on experience from operators to say, 'How did we do that?' One of the ideas that in our submission is how we expand advisory services. How do we expand existing programs for encouraging and developing tourism businesses in the north? There has already been good work by the government to reduce the threshold for the entrepreneur program. That may be further expanded to newer companies that have not been established so long or are still in their infancy stages. I am sure that with some of the other programs we could look at either tweaking them to include more tourism, basically, or look at other alternatives.

CHAIR: Do you think there would be a need or benefit in having an eagle eye view over the emerging areas or those areas that would like to get involved where there is support and direction given in relation to the type of product that could be of greatest value in that area to allow that disbursement? Is there any merit in establishing some sort of entity that would help to facilitate that?

Ms Schuntner : I do not want to speak on behalf of the state tourism organisations. I know in most of the jurisdictions they have a role in helping develop tourism and nurturing businesses along. If we look at the reality on the ground, we still have a lot of undeveloped areas that could be developed. I think we need to be brave and look at some new structures. Whether they are advisory or incorporated I will leave on the table. I think business as usual is not achieving as much as we could. I think forming a new group that could steer and direct federal and state governments would be helpful.

CHAIR: It may well be that it falls under your auspices too.

Ms Schuntner : Absolutely.

CHAIR: I will put that on notice. Give that some thought. As I say, the established markets do not need it so much. Even in Townsville here, where there is identification for significant growth in the market, there are a whole lot of impediments that are making it difficult to do that. But there could be some sort of body that could assist in directing. It seems to me that Tourism Australia is not able to do that at that micro level. Even tourism Queensland goes for the areas that are pushing. A lot of these areas may not know the opportunities that they have until such time as they are supported and identified. I will put that on notice. Give some thought to that, as we did with our previous witness, and see if we cannot get something out of that. You talked about investment in emerging tourism product. To access the Northern Australia tourism investment initiative, you have to have a turnover of over $750,000. I would be interested in your views in relation to the effectiveness of that and whether or not that excludes a significant amount of tourism opportunities.

Mr Beveridge : I would certainly like to add to that. Look at the small towns between Townsville and Mount Isa up in the Gulf and down towards Boulia. We have had five years of drought or well below average rainfall, so there is a renewed interest out there in tourism. In all of those communities, and we take in Mount Isa and Townsville, tourism is now in the top four income earners. So a little bit of money spent there will have a huge flow-on effect through those communities. I think the world has changed drastically for those small communities, especially with the downturn in mining, so any money spent there would have immediate effect. There is certainly a recognition that every winter the money starts flowing into the town. When the grazing industry was at its peak many years ago, and the mining industry five years ago, it was not noticed as much. I think a coordinated approach from the federal side of things would contribute to those small country towns in a huge way. Especially with the Indigenous groups, we see some really good projects up in the Gulf country. There is a caravan park. What is happening in Carpentaria Downs is in your own backyard. The state government are doing their bit. I think a federally coordinated approach could spread it.

CHAIR: As the bitumen rolls out, those opportunities are going to materialise even further. So is it fair to say that the majority of those that could benefit the most from access to those funds would be excluded because of the $750,000 minimum? Would that be a fair assessment?

Mr Beveridge : Absolutely. Most of our small country towns—nearly all of them—

CHAIR: Could never access it. So there needs to be a re-evaluation of that program to benefit those operators?

Ms Schuntner : To complement that, there is a bit of a gap in terms of the new start-up businesses in tourism and how we nurture them along. That is part of that previous discussion. If someone has been in business and wants to get going with a new business, how do we help them while they are in those infancy stages to put them on the right path? The entrepreneurs program is great, but you have to have a three-year track record and it starts with that $750,000 threshold. So I think there is the space to look at how we nurture through that process.

I will also take this opportunity to give you a figure. I think you were seeking before some indication of the value of the drive tourism market. I do not have it for the whole of the north. Just as an example in Queensland, there are 1.3 million drive tourists per annum. That is across the whole of Queensland, not just the north. It is worth $1.9 billion to the Queensland economy. That just gives an indication of the scale of the drive tourism market. There is another figure to complement that. The outback Queensland area, which is a large part of that rural and remote part of western Queensland, only gets three per cent of the overall tourism market. To my way of thinking, it would not take a lot to significantly make a difference in growing that tourism if we get some of these smaller things right.

Senator DODSON: Infrastructure is obviously a critical component to opportunities here. But there are also seasonal impacts. How can you mitigate against the three-month opportunity or the six-month opportunity or whatever it is? The outlays are to cope with long distance expenses, but the seasons are also a factor. Has there been any thought going into how to handle the particular seasons you butt up against when you come to Northern Australia?

Ms Schuntner : I think that is an interesting question from a couple of angles. First, I will discuss the angle of the infrastructure before getting to the market and distribution of the visitation. In terms of the infrastructure, of course, a lot of Northern Australia is reliant on dirt roads. The moment we have a wet, people cannot travel. Just for the record—I am sure it has come up before—higher vehicles are not allowed to go on dirt roads. They null and void their insurance if they do. To open up opportunities to towns that may currently be only on a dirt road and to expand opportunities for lengthening that season, the sealing of a road can make a very significant difference to tourism. Of course, there are also benefits to the cattle industry, the ag industry and the mining industry, depending on where they are. I think it is about the sealing of roads.

Secondly, where there is high demand, we need safe roads in terms of having passing lanes. We can picture the horror story of the Winnebago overtaking a triple road train. The grey nomads coming up from Melbourne might not have experience. It is quite a scary thing to see on the roads. I think it is about sealing the roads and safety with the passing lanes where we have that traffic.

The second part of that would be about how we try to disperse, if we have the hard infrastructure, to say, 'Yes, you can come for nine or 10 months of the year into our region rather than seven or eight.' It helps distribute. It is also how we develop our product and how we get new activities that may be broadening out the interest of tourists to travel for a broader period of time. So while people might escape the cold climate to come to the north, and that is over those three months of winter, how can we attract people in those shoulder periods? That is always every marketer's challenge. In that space, creating regional events that give people a hook to come at the beginning or end of the season is always a good way to drive tourism visitation and change those patterns a bit. But it does rely on the access first up.

CHAIR: It would also seem from some of the submissions we have had that it is about availability into the national park areas, which are not open when the wet is on. Access into those places is curtailed as well in that time.

Ms Schuntner : That is right. I think we have wonderful natural attractions. How do we work with people on the ground in communities, especially with the Indigenous communities? How do we make sure that there are opportunities that can create year-around employment or close to year-around employment rather than the stop-start? I think that is part of the infrastructure story but also part of the marketing story that we need to work on.

Ms LANDRY: This is a follow-on question. I want to know about the impact that the seasons have on tourism and staffing up this way. We are hearing a lot across the board about issues with retaining staff and getting qualified staff and for them to be able to stay on.

Ms Schuntner : While it is not my area of expertise, I would certainly make some opening comments on that in regard to having regional tourism employment plans. They are in place in some locations. I think there is an opportunity to broaden that out into some of the smaller communities as well. Certainly I think one of the challenges relating to my previous point is about how we can build up tourism over a longer period than the very peaky type visitation, which does not lend itself to year-round employment. By developing new product and more experiences, and by being able to hold events, we can broaden that out so it is viable to have year-round operations. They might be nine months of the year rather than, say, 12 months. Certainly that is better than some operating just six months a year.

In our Inland Queensland Roads Action Plan project, we have also shown the benefits of the infrastructure. It can create jobs, which also enable tourism. By building and maintaining roads, you are creating employment year-round on that work. It is opening up opportunities for tourists to use those roads. I think there is always an opportunity to look broadly at how infrastructure development can create immediate jobs and then ongoing jobs through what it opens up. One of the challenges often, especially in our example with roads, is there is not much traffic on that road yet. Of course, if it is a poor quality dirt road, it is not going to attract a lot of traffic. Once it is sealed and it is of a reasonable quality that a hire car can go over it, we can see opportunities for tourists to start using those routes. That opens up new motels or tourism opportunities. The local mechanic can put on extra staff with the through traffic and servicing and so on.

Mr Beveridge : I think we have adapted fairly well. I was at Cobbold Gorge last weekend. They have 10,000 visitors a year yet they are only open eight months of the year. So they completely shut it down. That is reflective of most things on Cape York, as Warren Entsch is aware. Any money spent on tourism between here and Mount Isa that has year-round access will probably mean more bang for your buck in the smaller communities.

Mr SNOWDON: One of the things that has become very apparent this morning is the lack of cohesive data collection. You have mentioned those figures, but getting regional specific data seems to be a problem.

Ms Schuntner : Yes. We have made a recommendation that we believe there could be a stronger collection of data. We understand sparsity in the sense that it is difficult. The more remote an area, the smaller the numbers and the less reliable the data is. Not only for government but for private sector investors to make decisions about investing and being a part of the tourism industry in the north, they need to work off better data than what we have available now. Northern Australia is unfortunately not a clean-cut division in Australian statistics in the ABS. Nor is tourism, for that matter. As we know, satellite accounts have to be used. So I think anything we can do to get better statistics and data to inform everything from the small start-up business to well established companies to get them coming in would help build the business case. At the moment, I feel as if people are flying blind. They need to invest a lot of money themselves in collecting data, which could be useful more broadly if it were available more centrally.

Mr SNOWDON: So what are the data collection points at the moment?

Ms Schuntner : International and domestic surveys. I believe they are managed by ABS. I am not an expert in this field. At the moment, they rely on sampling sizes where they take data from various points around Australia, which tend to be, if I am not mistaken, very much driven by surveys around capital cities and where else people have been in Australia as visitors. I think there is an opportunity to work closer with local and regional tourism organisations in terms of visitor flows through their tourism offices and visitor bureaus. They have statistics they keep. Certainly accommodation stats are kept to a certain degree. They are another great source of data. Of course, there are traffic flows in transport and main roads departments. They keep traffic flow numbers to a certain degree as well. So there are various sources that could be used. I think they should all be explored as opportunities to feed the full picture.

Mr SNOWDON: Certainly to me it has become apparent that we do not have a complete picture. When we talk about tourism in this region or anywhere else in the north, the data is sectoral. You might have good information about how many caravan parks there are, but you will not know how many people have used them. I think it is really difficult. You are our fourth person this morning. Each person has raised a question about data or has not been able to respond to a question about the depth of knowledge around the tourism market that actually currently exists and what its spin-offs are. I do not know if the ABS is going to give us that information.

Ms Schuntner : I fear it will take significant extra investment, but I think it is required and maybe needs something like an advisory group that we are talking about. One of the first charters of business could be to say, 'How do we collect and ensure we have better data to inform decision making about infrastructure and private sector investment?'

CHAIR: Well, that is what you would need to be able to decide—where specifics need to be.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I do not have a lot of questions because I have a lot of conversations with Glenys. I know the great work they do, particularly on that roads work. I want to confirm that your submission, which is a very good submission—it is very detailed, thank you—is on behalf of all the Northern Australian RDAs, including Western Australia and the Northern Territory?

Ms Schuntner : That is right. Eight of us cover the whole of the north down to Gladstone and mid-west Gascoyne and that line, including all of the Northern Territory.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: As I say, I do not have much to ask because your submission is very good and we have spoken. I am a fraction surprised—well, it is not for me to be surprised—by your suggestion for a Northern Australian tourism advisory group. I would have almost thought that your RDA northern group would be that group. Do you as a group give advice to all the relevant authorities?

Ms Schuntner : Yes, certainly. We give advice to individual organisations that are seeking funding or advice about connecting on investment. So that is something we definitely do. Each RDA does engage with prospective investors or government to say how we can share information to get things progressing and moving forward. In our submission, we did not want to be so presumptuous that RDAs would say, 'We're going to take over the world and suddenly take over everyone's job at tourism,' because we tend to work across multisectors and multi-industry. In the formation of the Northern Australia tourism advisory group, we would ask: who would be the secretariat? Who could run it to make it happen? We know that if you do not have a resource to keep things ticking along, they will never work. Everyone is busy in their day job, so to speak. So one option would be for the RDA network, through the Northern RDA Alliance, to provide that secretariat service to some type of northern advisory group for tourism. Alternatively, the government might feel more inclined to work, say, through the Office of Northern Australia. So they are our two ideas of how you could house it if it is to be an advisory group versus a new entity.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I am just a fraction concerned about yet another advisory group dealing with tourism. We need real money in tourism infrastructure, not in groups. There are a lot of tourism groups around that are being funded by someone who give the government advice. I was just thinking the RDAs might be in a position as a more general body but with obviously an interest in economic development, which in Northern Australia means tourism.

Ms Schuntner : Exactly. I think I could speak on behalf of our colleagues. We would be very happy to play a role in that space. We certainly believe that any type of new entity should not be duplicating the efforts of what is already occurring. At the moment, I would suggest that probably each state is competing for tourists. Each regional tourism organisation is competing for tourists. But there is no overarching advisory body or entity that is saying, 'How do we grow tourists in the north collaboratively? What do we need to do for it to all hum and grow, not just incrementally? How can we make a big bang? I put it that RDOs would be very happy to be involved.

CHAIR: That is why I asked you to give us an additional answer.

Ms Schuntner : To flesh it out for everyone.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I would have thought the RDAs are—

CHAIR: Well, they may well say that when they come back.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Almost in that position.

Mr Beveridge : If we had the funding, I think we would jump at the opportunity to extend.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: That is for you to make in your submissions. I am reluctant to have yet another group that someone has to pay for. But there is one that is already in existence that could well do it.

Ms Schuntner : That is right. We have a structure.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I am conscious of what you did with roads. Thanks, Chair.

CHAIR: We will finish now. Senator Dodson touched on access into protected areas—national parks et cetera. There has been quite a bit of evidence that has been raised in relation to the timely access there, where there has been a tendency, particularly in Queensland, for parks to be closed off for ever-extending periods, which is causing an impact on visitation. People are expecting them to be open at Easter and some of them are not being opened until July or August this year, for example, which causes a huge impact on the businesses plus the visitation experience. The second issue that they raised is the lack of maintenance within the national parks, which makes it difficult for visitors to travel in there. There are no opportunities, in collaboration with the parks, for the Indigenous traditional owners, in collaboration with somebody else, to establish appropriate infrastructure to bring people in there. There is no real appetite for that at the moment. Are you aware of that in the work you are doing? Does this extend right across the whole Northern Australia area?

Ms Schuntner : In my own local experience, I hear anecdotally a few stories, but I do not have any great evidence to put behind that. I would need to consult with my Northern Territory and WA colleagues about their situation as well. I would say that, from our perspective, the opportunity to access parks and to have basic infrastructure to support tourism would be something that we would endorse and support as long as it is done obviously in a responsible and sustainable way. I can see the work that tourism operators do on the Great Barrier Reef. They are some of the greatest conservationists and supporters of the survival of the reef. They are passionate about the reef and they are reliant on the reef for their business. I think the same can apply to access to national parks for opening up tourism opportunities. Certainly we would like to encourage more flexibility there within a framework that allows that.

I would also like to put on the record where I have seen some excellent work done recently, and that was in the Whitsundays. There was amazingly fast work to get the islands recovering from Cyclone Debbie by, I think, QPWS and others, including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and their authority as well. It was a phenomenal effort to get things back in operation there very quickly after the cyclone. I would like to put on the record that they are very supportive of the tourism industry in those types of examples. We would like to encourage that going forward.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your time. It has been very useful. I would ask you to give some consideration to that oversight entity and how you would see we could do something going forward. We are looking for additional information by 21 July, but if you need a bit more time on that, we would be more than happy to accept your thoughts and submission on that. Thanks again for your time. If we have any other questions, we can fire them off through the secretariat. Thank you.

Ms Schuntner : Thank you for the opportunity. We will follow up on that feedback.