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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee
Operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities

HOMAN, Mr Peter, General Manager, Outback Queensland Tourism Association

LOWRY, Mr Russell, Economic Development and Tourism Manager, Longreach Regional Council

ACTING CHAIR: Can we formally acknowledge and welcome our colleague Senator Colbeck all the way from Tasmania. There is that rumour that Tasmanians are always a little bit late! But I wouldn't apply that to Senator Colbeck, a former minister of the Crown.

I now reopen this inquiry of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee into the operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities. We welcome Mr Homan from the Outback Queensland Tourism Association. Do you wish to make any changes to your submission?

Mr Homan : No, not at all.

ACTING CHAIR: Do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Homan : I'd love to. We cover quite a big area, and there are quite a few airports in that region. One of the big inhibitors of tourism is access—not so much that we have the airports, but the airports are limited by their scheduling. For Longreach, for example, it's Brisbane-Longreach, Longreach back to Brisbane and twice a week up to Townsville, on Rex. What we see as inhibiting factors are scheduling going further north-west, up to Mount Isa or to Cairns direct. That's just part of the overall scheduling issue; we also see scheduling issues down around Roma, around Charleville and up north as well.

It's a chicken-and-egg situation. The airlines will say, 'If the demand's there, then we'll put the services on.' But we think the services need to come before to create demand, and we can drive demand if the services are there. That's my statement.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you for that.

Senator CHISHOLM: Spending the last 24 hours here, you get a sense of how important the tourism sector is to Longreach. Could you expand on that, to give the committee an understanding of the importance of it to the community beyond Longreach and surrounding areas?

Mr Homan : Sure. Particularly with the drought in the agricultural sector, it's affected a lot of the local communities in the outback immensely—especially around sheep; a lot of the shearers have moved out of town. Towns have been dwindling. Tourism is a sustainable industry that can keep those towns alive.

The other important thing about tourism is that it creates a social fabric. People are really proud of their towns and they're proud to talk to the tourists coming in. It creates a whole different fabric to society when there are a lot of tourists coming to an area. It's a really important industry. It's strong; it's got a lot of growth in it. I was looking at some worldwide figures today, and tourism is continuing to grow at about 10½ per cent annually worldwide. In the outback, we've been growing at anything up to 13 per cent, so it's really strong.

As countries mature, as they become more sophisticated, as we retire with more money in our pockets, the No. 1 thing we spend our money on is health; No. 2 is travel and entertainment. It'll continue to grow out here, and we need to be able to cope with that growth. That growth won't be all around the drive market; some of it will be around the fly-in market, which is really relevant to today's hearing.

Senator CHISHOLM: The evidence we had from Tony Martin, who wore two hats as a council representative and also as the CEO of the Qantas museum, was that the percentage of people coming via air at the moment is quite low and that there's a real growth opportunity if the price point can be right. Is that a fair conclusion?

Mr Homan : Yes, I agree with that, and I think there's a lot of growth in the fly-in market. I agree that price is an issue with it, but I also think that the experience is at this end. I'll go back to that scheduling. We could create a different type of market with more scheduling. I know there are some issues around going, say, from Longreach back to Brisbane. There are slot issues around the Brisbane airport, and I know they won't be addressed until the airport has its improvement—but if we had access into Rockhampton, if we had access into Cairns; I think they're the two. The two big players for us would be the international airports. We could really grow an international market by getting them into those international ports and into the outback, whether that be Longreach or Mount Isa or Roma or Charleville. I think they're issues that we can really attack. Price is an important part. When they're packaged up with an experience on the ground, I think we can mitigate the price to a certain extent, but I think the scheduling and the access are the two bigger issues from a tourism perspective.

Senator CHISHOLM: Do you think that is particular to the international market more than the domestic market?

Mr Homan : We can create both. If we go to those international airports—if we've got access to Darwin or to Cairns—we can then open up the domestic market as well, and that might even be through Wellcamp at Toowoomba. We might actually be able to access the domestic market better. But at the moment we've got some packages in the market loaded with all the travel agents, and they're just starting to bite. If we had better access, better scheduling and better pricing, we could improve those packages right across the board.

Senator CHISHOLM: How do you view the relationship between your organisation, the airlines and the airports? Is it one that's harmonious? Is there tension there, or do you think that, largely, people are working in the right direction?

Mr Homan : I think we're working in the right direction, yes. I think it's very harmonious. Our relationship with both the two bigger carriers out here—Qantas and Rex—is very strong. Virgin also operates out of Mount Isa and Cloncurry and also out of Emerald. Even though Emerald's not our area, it's a gateway to us, so it's important.

Senator PATRICK: You've put forward a lot of different proposals within your submission. I love a player who comes in and rattles the big guys or comes in with competition. What sort of support do you need to get this proposal up and running?

Mr Homan : I think support from this committee or from the government would help us a lot.

Senator PATRICK: More from the government. The committee can make recommendations, and, of course, the senators can put pressure on government. What sort of help would you need to get these proposals up?

Mr Homan : Financial probably, some sort of incentive for the airlines to either be more competitive or to change their scheduling, and I think there's that old chicken-and-egg thing—and I mentioned it before—about demand. There is no demand because there are no routes or there's no scheduling at the moment. I fly probably twice a week, and nearly all the flights I catch, particularly to the outback, are pretty full, so it needs to be addressed, whether we go to more planes or to bigger aircraft. But, more importantly, I think it's about whether, if we had better routes and better scheduling—whether it be north-west of here—we could fill those planes up. I view these places as hubs, and you'll see that in the submission. We could have Mount Isa, Longreach and Roma as hubs where people could come to but could not only just go back to Brisbane; they could go to Rockhampton or Cairns or Mount Isa and then Darwin. I think that would be terrific for us, but the help that we would need would probably be some incentive back to the airlines to at least give it a go for six or 12 months or some pressure somehow.

Senator PATRICK: Or some alternative airline.

Mr Homan : Competition would probably be the better answer, yes.

Senator PATRICK: Yes. Obviously, this is a window into some deeper study that you've done to assess viability?

Mr Homan : Yes, we've been talking to all airlines, including Airnorth operating out of Darwin, for quite a while about scheduling, and they're really not interested, because they don't need to do it. I think that's one of the bigger problems. Senator Chisholm just asked that question about how harmonious are we with the airlines. We are; but they usually talk their way. They're not going to put on additional aircraft if there is no money in it for them. They don't want to take the risks.

Senator PATRICK: Indeed, it is convenient for them to just keep talking to you.

Mr Homan : Correct.

Senator PATRICK: Is Wellcamp an international airport?

Mr Homan : It is. They're taking produce overseas at the moment but their intent is to take passengers as well.

Senator PATRICK: With the forgiveness of the chair, I'm going to use the c-word—cabotage. Have you looked at the potential? I say this partly because the airlines will be watching what we are saying. If you look at the testimony that was taken in Broome, for example, the Broome tourism organisation—in fact, it was the airport that appeared to be driving it—were looking to do some sort of deal with SilkAir. Have you looked at some sort of arrangement like that?

ACTING CHAIR: You might define cabotage for the audience so that they can understand the answer.

Senator PATRICK: Cabotage is the restriction the Australian government places on international carriers doing domestic sectors. They stopped that.

Mr Homan : You can't fly them in full into Sydney then pick up people in Sydney—

Senator PATRICK: Yes, pick up the people in Sydney, go to Mount Isa and then back to wherever it is they're going. Have you explored that at all?

Mr Homan : No, we haven't. We've spoken to some airlines but they're not interested in it. They are the ones that we deal with currently—Qantas, Rex and Airnorth. We haven't looked at any international carriers flying directly into the outback.

Senator PATRICK: A part of the way that the Senate can help is by connecting dots and maybe having a chat to the airport corporation in Broome—

Mr Homan : To find out what they were doing?

Senator PATRICK: Yes. It might be worth having a chat with them just to help you along. You've got all these different routes that you've proposed. As per Rockhampton, they were struggling to get the necessary information to build a business case. Are you in a similar circumstance?

Mr Homan : Data in the outback is probably our hardest thing to gather. I had a meeting last week with Telstra InSight, who can tell you who is moving around in your area at any given time, because they are taking the pinging off your mobile phone. Telstra is the main carrier out here. We will get that information eventually, but how long that takes to build—

ACTING CHAIR: You need to go via Facebook! This is a serious question. I am in total agreement with Senator Patrick that this data belongs to the people—

Mr Homan : To the public.

ACTING CHAIR: to the public. It is just that a government agency is the custodian of it. It shouldn't be this hard. I need to ask you whether you have done FOIs or forced them through some other method. You might be able to capture an answer that covers it for us all.

Mr Homan : I would love to do that, because it is horrendously expensive for a small organisation like ours, and then we've got councils who are struggling to keep their head above water at the moment as well. We would all benefit, including Mr Fisher from Rockhampton, if the data was strong. We could give him all that data. We can work out where they have boarded. We can work out where they're going to. We can work out how long they're staying in different towns, when they're going and when they are going back as well. So we would have a really good case about movements.

ACTING CHAIR: Who holds that data? That's Telstra?

Mr Homan : Telstra have a company called Telstra InSight. They gather the data off every mobile tower and then they sell the data.

ACTING CHAIR: Why don't you prepare a request list as we have asked the Rockhampton council to do and give it to the committee, and we'll contemplate whether we convert it into a request from us?

Mr Homan : That would be great.

Senator PATRICK: I know at the federal level all FOI applications are free until you get to a particular point where you're diverting resources. Indeed, there is a statutory requirement to answer you within 28 days. Most of the FOI legislation around the country is very similar. In South Australia, for example, there is an application fee, but it has to be cheaper than jumping on a plane. It has to be cheaper than sitting and waiting and wasting an opportunity. So, by all means, try to do it yourself and, if you have any difficulty, you can contact my office, who are good at FOIs.

Mr Homan : That's great.

Senator PATRICK: Alternatively, as Senator O'Sullivan has said, if you were to lay out the sort of information you might require, it might simply then be that, even if we don't get the data for you directly, it might simply be a recommendation that flows from the committee that this is the sort of information that should be made publicly available in order that people who want to explore a competitive opportunity can do so.

Mr Homan : That's terrific, because, to build the case that we're putting to the committee at the moment, we don't need the finer detail.

Senator PATRICK: You don't need to identify a passenger. You can just de-identify them, as the census office does—

Mr Homan : Yes, correct.

Senator PATRICK: and get access to at least a single person showing—

Mr Homan : We just want to see the movements and the numbers.

ACTING CHAIR: Can I just bring Senator Colbeck in there for a second as a former minister of the Crown. What would be an argument whereby you wouldn't provide data collected by a department that you administered in the manner that we're talking about to an applicant, such as, in this case, a peak industry body?

Senator COLBECK: It would depend on the various types of data. As a former tourism minister, I would have thought that the research out of Tourism Research Australia would be of real value. I would have thought that there would be opportunities working particularly with other regional airports on your individual movements—growth in those and growth in seat numbers—and compiling those into building a case. The difficult elements of it to pick up will be the terrestrial movements. They would be the more difficult thing, but it depends. Then you can also work on the relationship that you've got with accommodation places to start building some numbers. The difficulty is those that are self-contained, and I don't know what the proportion of those in or out of this region might be, but I suspect they're relatively significant.

Mr Homan : Yes, and Tourism Australia don't pick those up, but I think our issue more is—

Senator COLBECK: It's harder in regional Australia, and, in smaller locations, it's extremely difficult, basically because it's difficult to get information sets to match. It is a real problem, and, if you can build some cooperation within your region to do that, it would be a huge advantage for you, and it would probably be of great use in a broader sense for government in policy setting.

Mr Homan : I think in relation to this inquiry, too, it's that pent-up demand that we cannot measure. We can't measure the pent-up demand for people travelling say from Roma to Longreach to Mount Isa to Darwin or from Longreach to Cairns or Cairns backwards. If we don't have the infrastructure, how can we know whether or not they're going to use it if there's no service already existing? It's almost a case of: how do we measure the pent-up demand, not the demand that currently exists for current services?

Senator COLBECK: Do you have access to any of the yield data from the airlines? Your comment is about the loads on flights that you take, and, if you're travelling a couple of times a week, you'd have a fairly good vision of that, but do you have any access to any of that data in your conversations with the airlines?

Mr Homan : Yes, we do. We do have access to that data, yes, but it's very broad. It's not detailed. We don't get the detailed flight specifications. We only get, 'For the first four months, it's 78 per cent,' or whatever.

Senator COLBECK: Even that has some value because that also works its way into the broader decision-making of the airlines—their decision to put the capacity on, for example. I was a little surprised at some of the schedules when I was investigating coming out here. For example, what are the numbers in terms of throughput through Longreach Airport on an annual basis?

Mr Homan : Russell, are you here? What's the number, mate, through Longreach Airport?

Mr Lowry : There are 500 guaranteed seats into Longreach per week on the two services, the central two and the northern one.

Senator COLBECK: What's the total, mate, for the year?

Mr Lowry : Inbound, 26,000 only.

ACTING CHAIR: Is that the actual number or the limit?

Mr Lowry : That's the limit. Current utilisation is around 68 per cent, on average, across the year. If we have a look at November through to February, it drops down to close to 45 per cent on average. Some of those planes are 30 per cent capacity. If you have a look in the winter or the higher season across Longreach, you are looking in excess of 78 to 85 per cent capacity. Some days those planes are full, coming in and going out.

Senator COLBECK: So you're, effectively, impacted by the seasonal factors that most places have, although your seasons might vary a bit compared to other locations.

Mr Lowry : Yes. Our main period of travel is April to September, for the travellers, tourism, coming through. As part of my submission, prior to this morning, we are looking at a tourism strategy that will move what we class as the shoulders outwards, to include February-March and October-November, where we're attempting to bring further travellers into the region. Through conversations with the departments at the state tourism RTOs and carriers we're attempting to get collaboration there to improve the value of those airfares, to bring people in regional—

ACTING CHAIR: Those stats you gave a moment ago, are they just on the regulated route to Longreach or have you averaged them across the Townsville service as well?

Mr Lowry : They're both included. The Townsville service is, on average, over the 12-month period, 20 per cent utilised.

Mr Homan : The Rex Airlines—that Longreach to Townsville route would bring that average down. It's not used very often.

ACTING CHAIR: That would significantly impact on it. What are the volumes, Townsville versus the Longreach to Brisbane—

Mr Lowry : On a weekly basis, and I'll bring it up to annual, on a 34-seater, having twice a week into Winton and Longreach, there are only 68 seats per week coming out of Townsville and then returning. And then you've got approximately 450 to 500 due to the pick-up of Barcaldine and Blackall on those six days a week.

ACTING CHAIR: If we took the figures you gave earlier and applied a tolerance of five or six per cent, it—

Mr Lowry : Yes.

Senator PATRICK: Just going back to your proposal, I said I like the idea that you bring in someone new to shake up the turf a little bit. Have you had any bites in that—maybe Airnorth extending a service?

Mr Homan : We spoke to Airnorth. They do a Darwin-Cairns and they do Sydney-Melbourne as well and they leave their plane there. We spoke to them about bringing it back this way to Longreach, Mount Isa and Darwin. They were half interested.

Senator PATRICK: They are quite familiar with milk runs, as we heard in our journey to Western Australia. They have milk runs across there.

Mr Homan : Yes, they are.

Senator PATRICK: From the detail and scope of your submission, I presume this is not a plan in isolation, that you understand you need to grow the market as well and get your tourist attractions up there as world class.

Mr Homan : Correct.

Senator PATRICK: It's a comprehensive plan.

Mr Homan : It is.

Senator PATRICK: In terms of your organisation, is it state funded?

Mr Homan : We get part-funded by the state and the rest of the funding comes from local government associations and members.

Senator PATRICK: So you have enough financial horsepower to do the study properly and get people interested.

Mr Homan : Absolutely.

ACTING CHAIR: A suggestion about time in the air was made earlier. For example, it would be quicker, if you're a Mount Isa resident, to fly Mount Isa-Longreach-Brisbane than Mount Isa-Townsville-Brisbane.

Mr Homan : Correct.

ACTING CHAIR: Our friends from the airport own a ship, because they're going to get—

Mr Homan : Increased services.

ACTING CHAIR: If I anticipate the outcome of the questions they've taken on notice, they probably make a little bit more on a passenger from Longreach than from Townsville. The airlines wouldn't care. They're going to pick a passenger up at one port or another. I know this isn't strictly tourism, but do you know whether there've been these sorts of conversations amongst the stakeholders to stimulate a debate or a discussion that might end up with a plan that people like us can go and fight for on your behalf?

Mr Lowry : Through council—through the mayor, Ed Warren—we are looking to commence those conversations at the moment with the Cairns and Townsville tourism areas. We are looking at every opportunity to change, vary or add air routes that will improve the utilisation of Longreach Airport, those being Cairns-Longreach-Brisbane and Darwin-Mount Isa-Longreach-Brisbane. So we're not averse to any open conversation that will improve—

ACTING CHAIR: No. But it seems to me, as we've explored this—not just here but in the public meetings that I've had—that there hasn't been any formal war council with all the stakeholders.

Mr Lowry : No.

ACTING CHAIR: So, even if you were to do the Mount Isa-Longreach-Brisbane thing, if that were possible, that would impact positively or negatively, if you like, on other communities who've got interests in this.

Mr Lowry : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: I can't urge you strongly enough to contemplate a practice run with that, particularly while the committee are contemplating these matters over the next couple of months, because inputs with solutions—we know all the problems now; there are no problems left to know, virtually—that work for these communities would assist us greatly.

Senator COLBECK: I might veer off into some other stuff. Just looking at the visitation numbers that were in your submission, the ones that interested me in particular were the international figures, which are trending down, which is the exact opposite to everywhere else. That interests me, given my previous experience looking at the tourism market. You mention in your submission that China is the largest visitor market. Do you think that change in the demographic of visitors coming in is having an impact on visitation from the international market?

Mr Homan : I'm unsure of that question.

Senator COLBECK: In an international sense, can you give me a sense of who your key visitors might have been. Were they from the US, Japan, the UK or Europe? Now that the market's swinging very much more to China, is that having an impact on the visitation numbers, for whatever reason? I'm not asking you to put a reason on it. It might be a reason, but I'm just interrogating the information.

Mr Homan : It could be. Europe's our No. 1 market, followed by the US, followed by the UK and then followed by New Zealand. They're our main markets. One of the problems that we're suffering from is that Queensland as a whole has been underperforming as a market, both internationally and domestically. It's growing, but the growth is small compared to both New South Wales and Victoria. Our big issue, I think—more so—is our access into the ports here. For example, if you were to come here in season, it would be difficult to bring out a group—maybe 20 people—on a plane and to find accommodation. We have some product issues as well. It's not just the airlines or the airports; there are a whole lot of other reasons why we've got a diminishing market. Those markets—the US market, as you know, went soft for a while, as did the UK market. The New Zealand market is actually picking up for us; they're moving away from traditional destinations like the Gold Coast to go to the outback. But when you look at the overall statistics for Queensland, that Asian market, which is booming, is only really filling the gap for where we've been losing market share in the Western markets.

Senator COLBECK: It's good that you mentioned the other elements around infrastructure. What is the level of interest for investing in those other bits of infrastructure combinations, things of that nature? Is this all part of the chicken and egg—well, let's not call it 'chicken and egg'; let's call it 'vicious circle'.

Mr Homan : Yes, it is, isn't it?

Senator COLBECK: There's the vicious circle where, if you can't get the returns, the yields, then the existing infrastructure suffers, and there's also a reluctance to develop new—

Mr Homan : To invest, yes. I think that right across the board, right through the outback, there is a real product development issue. It runs through all the industries too: as well as the tour operators, it's the people in experience development, product development and industry development. They're all suffering at the moment. We've got high demand here but not enough accommodation, and that's right throughout the outback.

Senator COLBECK: So high demand?

Mr Homan : And increasing all the time.

Senator COLBECK: And I suppose it's very seasonal?

Mr Homan : Look, the seasons have been taken out of play a bit. There have been some really good things happen over the last few years, like two-for-one deals on the rail that have increased the off-season or the slow season. It's right across the board. Right through summer and winter is a lack of product: lack of accommodation, lack of tour operators, the whole gamut. But that's not affecting international tourism. There are a whole lot of other factors that are pushing us down there, and probably the No. 1 thing is our access to international ports. To get to the outback, you've got to get into an international port. Then, if you're coming in at the Gold Coast or Cairns, you've got to get to Brisbane before you can even get out here. Or if you're in Cairns, you've got to get to Townsville before you get out here.

Senator COLBECK: That's why I was asking about infrastructure development, because sometimes the sort of capital for infrastructure development can actually also be a drawcard, a supply chain if you like, to drive some of those other elements.

Mr Homan : Yes, exactly.

Senator COLBECK: That's why I was interested to know what was happening in this space.

Mr Homan : Yes; it's very much a chicken and egg thing. A bit like the demand for the airlines as well.

Senator COLBECK: You talked about the experience offering, which is really what is driving a lot of the demand in tourism at the moment—it is experience, not necessarily the marble bathrooms. Are you seeing development in that space out here as well?

Mr Homan : Yes, we are. For the size of the area and the population of the outback, we're seeing some terrific improvements, from the Waltzing Matilda Centre reopening in a couple of weeks' time to the some of the dinosaur experiences out here. And that's a real issue for us because, as those dinosaur experiences continue to grow, we just do not have the infrastructure or the access into the region to cater for any international tourists. But they are growing, so there is a lot of experience development going on right across the outback—from tours into national parks through to large attractions improving what they've got. Yes, that's really good. And most of the local government associations understand that attractions are the things that are pulling people into towns, or keeping them longer. They probably don't necessarily pull a lot of people into town, but what they do do is keep them in town longer.

Senator COLBECK: So what's the level of integration cooperation across those local government areas?

Mr Homan : Strong. Very strong. They work really well with each other; incredibly well.

ACTING CHAIR: They're downstairs in the basement at the moment conspiring—

Senator COLBECK: The question I was then going to get back to was about data gathering, sharing and that sort of stuff, because at the end of the day that's a key decision-maker. As I said to you before, gathering that sort of information, particularly in regional Australia—and I don't restrict it to Queensland; it's an impact outside the major metropolitan centres across the country—is just so vital in driving some of the infrastructure spend but also the logistics that go with it.

Mr Homan : It's one of our biggest issues. If we can't measure it, it's really hard. Back to the research that Tourism Australia do, a lot of what they do for the National Visitor Survey is on accommodation houses of 15 rooms or more—that's how they gather their information—while the majority of the tourists coming to the outback are actually pulling their home behind them, whether it be a caravan or a camper trailer. It makes it very difficult to measure, which is why we're—

ACTING CHAIR: What time of year was the last census? Was it in any of your peak periods?

Mr Homan : It was in tourist season, actually.

ACTING CHAIR: Wouldn't that give you a peak idea, at least for the high-end season?

Mr Homan : Yes.

Senator COLBECK: That's another source of data.

Mr Homan : It is, yes. There are multi-layers; we need to layer the data. I don't think there's one set of data that will satisfy what we need. We need multi-layers of data that sit on top of each other that are well-analysed.

Senator COLBECK: One thing that I can encourage you to do out of this is to work on how you, as a region, could actually build some of your own information. It's very difficult, as I said. Even in the 15-and-under hotel rooms, just getting the cooperation to do it is extremely difficult, which is why they're left out. That sector of the tourism economy is probably one of the most important when it comes to regional Australia. Trying to turn the availability of the information around could make a huge difference to your capacity to run an argument.

Mr Lowry : The RAPAD councils—RAPAD is the remote area planning and development board—which are the seven councils in the central west of Queensland, authored a smart digital report in late 2017 on how we can improve the connectivity through telecommunications out here. Part of that was: what data is required to make the region more productive? We're looking at rolling out that strategy at the moment, and part of that is: what data do we need to collect to analyse and then improve productivity and connectivity in this region? Within the next 12 months, there should be some data starting to be collected and able to be analysed, especially across tourism and those sorts of places and the other economic development drivers, where we can actually start to inform submissions and applications for funding to assist infrastructure.

Senator PATRICK: That's separate to the NBN?

Mr Lowry : Yes, it is.

Senator COLBECK: I saw an experiment out of the University of Tasmania where they provided mobile phones to international visitors coming into the state and left them with them for the length of their tour, and they were pinged at certain points—there were reminders that came up as part of that process. It brought out some really interesting information about tourism in the state—some of it we didn't necessarily want to hear, I might add! It might be worth having a talk to someone like that who's been through a process already, and who can give you some pointers as to what sorts of things you might be chasing down as part of your information-gathering exercise. It'll tell you the good, the bad and the ugly.

Mr Homan : There's some software out there where, at any given point in time, you can see where all the Italian people, all the French people and all the German people are in Australia. It's an amazing bit of software.

ACTING CHAIR: We need that for those Tasmanians too!

Mr Homan : And Tasmanians!

ACTING CHAIR: Tasmanians and Kiwis, I think!

Senator COLBECK: The other thing that's exercising me a little bit is seasonality. Your cycle is completely inverse to what I see at home. I'm just going back to the international visitors stuff and what the seasons are for visitation, and how that also impacts on what you're seeing out here. I just find it really curious, that particularly along the coastal area—I get that, but, given the focus on experience these days rather than just resorts, I would have thought that you've got a lot to offer out this way.

Mr Homan : Yes, we do, absolutely, and they're the sorts of things we're pitching on as well. The Germans, say, as a particular market segment, love coming to the outback in our summer, so they're quite an easy mark, and we've got some good relationships with our inbound tour operators, so it's been a really good win-win.

Senator COLBECK: What are the big tourism marketing agents telling you when you're out in the market? What are the things they're telling you about coming to a place like this?

Mr Homan : They're excited to be talking to us because it's a relatively new product for the market, so it's something they can sell. They've had their commissions eroded by low-cost carriers or online booking agents, all those sorts of things, so they're looking for where they can get high-yielding product that hasn't been in the market a long time that they can actually sell and make some good money on. That's probably the main thing for us, but we just need to be biting at them all the time. We're relatively new to the travel trade industry. We just need to be much more active.

Senator COLBECK: That does answer one question to a certain extent, because what the market's telling you is also an important part in that process. Perhaps it's also a bit of an indicator of what's happening in your international visitation.

Mr Homan : Yes, and I think Tourism and Events Queensland did a significant survey a couple of years ago about what was happening in the market and the results were: 'We love Queensland. We've been to Queensland before. It's like a comfortable slipper we can put on. We'll go back whenever we feel like it.' But it's not driving people to the region, and some of the product that we have in Queensland—the big hero industries like the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast and Cairns—are places where a lot of people have already been, so they're not necessarily wanting to go back there, but the outback has what they want in droves. Whenever we talk to inbound tour operators or wholesalers, the first thing they say is, 'Fantastic, we want big open skies; we want fresh air; we want experiences around rivers, creeks and gorges and all those sorts of things.' So we're really well placed. It's just a matter of that continual knock on the door.

Mr Lowry : Part of the seasonality is that, during that four months over Christmas and New Year and all those periods, we could have up temperatures of up to 45 or 48 degrees here, so the market has developed a winter product to attract tourism and travellers into the region. What we've now got to do is develop a summer package or a summer product. We're talking about night-sky parks where they come out and look at the stars and the Milky Way; some of our night skies have some of the best viewing in Australia. It's about developing product around the season that hasn't been a focus; it's coming up with anything new that will attract new marketing to the region during summer.

Senator COLBECK: That's one of the reasons I'm happy to be here tonight.

ACTING CHAIR: Just in closing, have you considered applying for a grant from the federal government that might be a one-off experiment, if you like, to try and stimulate this, to prove up the potential of passenger movements if airfares specifically were less than they are. So, something funded by government, a trial that went over six months, for example, may cost a lot of money but, nonetheless, would provide evidence that the potential exists, not just for your marketplace but other marketplaces, as a result. Has anyone done anything as ambitious as that?

Mr Homan : We are well down the track of doing something with the state government and Qantas about some market penetration and seeing how that goes in the off-season. But I think for us—and, again, I'll go back to the point—whilst price is a deterrent when it's sitting out there by itself, when it's packaged up with product on the ground, you can hide it a bit. I think our issue in the outback is more the scheduling and the routes and all that. I think they're inhibiting factors for us while we don't have direct access to international ports, except for Brisbane. It's not where the tourists are coming. Anyone in this room will know that the average length of stay in Brisbane is one night because it's a business market; the tourists do not go there. The Brisbane marketing team is smaller than my team out here. It goes to show that leisure is not a really big thing in Brisbane. Our biggest thing is that if we can get flights direct out of Cairns or the Gold Coast, or even out of Darwin, coming the other way, it would give us much better access to stimulate tourism out here than the pricing factor. You don't sell a lot of tourist packages when it's just on price; it's got to be packaged with something. It needs to be packaged with accommodation, attractions on the ground and tours on the ground. That's where you can pull all that together. We're going to have a crack at it later this year through some work the state government are doing.

ACTING CHAIR: I have to say that my observations over the last couple of decades have been that the job you guys have done out here with your neighbours and all the way down to things like the Cosmos Centre and the Bilby Experience and what's happening in Winton—you have performed and outperformed much tougher markets in Australia.

Mr Homan : You know, it's funny you say that. I've just done some research from what little we can get. The numbers are fantastic in the outback. They're really right above the Queensland average and all the other outbacks in Australia. That's mostly due to investment by local government associations and attractions. They have been completely pushing the envelope in every way, shape or form. They've been putting up free parking areas and there are dump points everywhere. They've really been catering for the market. The attractions just keep on growing. So hats off to them more than anyone. That's the reason they keep coming back or the numbers keep improving.

Senator PATRICK: I was just looking back through the conversations we were having in Darwin and also the submission of the Airports Association. Darwin has Philippine Airlines, Silk Air, Jetstar, AirAsia—though one of them might have stopped—operating into Darwin. I just wonder whether there's a marriage that could be had.

Mr Homan : I'd love to think so.

Senator PATRICK: Even just courting with them might encourage Qantas and others to—

Mr Homan : To sharpen their pencil. I agree. I think they're good opportunities for us.

Senator PATRICK: Out of Cairns there are even more international carriers.

Mr Homan : I think Cairns had nine million people through its airport last year. Is that right?

Senator PATRICK: The total international passengers to Cairns was 648,000.

Mr Homan : So it was domestic as well, but 648,000 is good. We'd only need about 10 per cent of that and it would change the game out here.

ACTING CHAIR: Let me make the offer again. Our role, particularly as senators, is as servants to you and your community here and to our states to do whatever is within our power to influence outcomes that will help your local and regional economy. Don't hesitate to keep our feet to the flame. If you want someone to make a bullshit phone call to the ambassador for Indonesia so that we can get you in—although I wouldn't bring Garuda into Longreach, but we can get you in touch with Silk Air or Singapore Airlines. I promise. I don't even have to consult my colleagues. We will do whatever we can to use our influence to help you do that.

Mr Homan : That's terrific. Tourism is such a sustainable industry in the outback and it makes such a difference to so many people and provides so much employment to people when they need it. Again, I go back to that fabric of society. People are really proud to welcome newcomers into town. It just makes such a difference to local communities.

ACTING CHAIR: Come to Senator Chisholm and I, because we would just love to take some of those tourists and stop them getting into South Australia and Tasmania. It would do wonders for our home state.

Mr Homan : If we could have tourism like Tasmania does, we'd be very happy.

Senator PATRICK: How does the saying go, Senator O'Sullivan? What do I like about you? Not very much.

ACTING CHAIR: That sounds like an ad! Thank you, Mr Homan. Thanks for your effort.

Senator COLBECK: Chair, just on that last point, I think the direction you're heading in is the right one. It's the natural experience that is driving industry at home in Tassie. There is the attitude of state governments around development in national parks. You've got plenty of space up here.

Mr Homan : Yes.

Senator COLBECK: It's that natural experience which is really driving things, particularly in some of the premium markets like the US, where it's about the experience—something they can't get anywhere else. It yields really well. It's something that sends a message home straightaway.

Mr Homan : And you don't really need to market it, do you? If the experience is right, it'll market itself.

Senator COLBECK: It will market itself. So the infrastructure, connectivity and all of those things become important in that context. They are the sorts of things that are really driving the experience at home, so the developmental work becomes important. Some of the new attractions that are coming online at home in Tassie, which are running almost at capacity, are relevant to that and are showing up in the national tourism awards. So I think your direction in that sense is right; it is just getting all the ducks lined up.

Mr Homan : It is. We have had the fortune of going to Tasmania and having a look at some of that product, especially down in the south-west wilderness area; it was just amazing.

Senator COLBECK: The south east as well. It is something that is a bit spectacular and a bit different from what you're going to see anywhere else.

Mr Homan : We can do that out here.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Homan. And thank you for a second time, Mr Lowry. I forgot to mention to your mayor today how much we appreciate the regional council hosting us here and giving us the warm welcome and support that we have had. Indeed, that has been the case with all of the councils where we have had public meetings so far. We really appreciate it. Safe travel between now and whatever your destination port is.