Backpackers exert a growing import

BACKPACKING may be considered by some to be poor person’s travel option, but that doesn’t mean it does not generate a significant income for the tourism and travel market.

Last year, for example, backpackers represented about 17 per cent of all international visitors to WA.

A substantial increase in the number of backpackers visiting both WA and Australia, along with a marked surge in the amount of money they’re spending, is establishing the group as a financially significant sector of the tourism market.

The numbers of visitors to Australia choosing to stay in backpackers’ accommodation has increased in recent years, while the market share of hotels and motels has fallen slightly.

According to Bureau of Tourism Research (BRT) figures for 1997, hotels, motels and resorts picked up 20 per cent of the incoming tourist accommodation market, with backpackers claiming 8 per cent. However, the most recent BTR figures (from 1999) indicated that motels could claim only an 18 per cent share of the same market, while backpackers now occupied a 10 per cent share.

In the period 1999 to 2000, 94,800 international backpackers visited WA, up 31 per cent on the 1998-99 figures of 72,6000.

Meanwhile, the overall number of backpackers visiting Australia increased by 25 per cent from 1997 to 1999, with the number of backpacking visitors per year jumping from 306,100 in 1997 to 404,300 in 1999.

Not only has the number of backpackers increased, but the amount being spent also was on the up and up, with 1997 figures placing expenditure at $1196.3 million and 1999 figures showing that number has increased by $520.7 million to $1717 million.

According to industry sources, WA is picking up its fair share of the market. The managing editor of local backpacker publication WaX Magazine, Luke Fernandez, said the word on the street was that the industry was having a very successful time, despite a downturn in last year’s winter figures, where there was an estimated 60 per cent drop.

“There’s a lot of things happening in the industry, which indicates it is a growth industry without any doubt,” Mr Fernandez said.

“WA in general is not as commercially developed as the east coast – you can drive for an hour and see no-one else on the road. That’s what people come for, the isolation and the wilderness, and there’s plenty of it.”

He said many locations around the State had an international reputation for “guaranteed fun” that many backpackers found difficult to resist.

“It’s well known with backpackers from all over the world that if you go to Broome in season you are going to have a party. People know in peak season it is literally a party town,” Mr Fernandez said.

He said the same principle applied to Margaret River and surfing.

Backpacker resorts in Perth and its surrounding areas are also trying to pick up a larger share of the Australian backpacking market. Local businessman Chris Dodgson last week announced a $200,000 plan to convert a series of 1920s townhouses on the corner of James and Stirling streets and launch the Mad Cat Backpackers.

If all goes to plan, Mr Dodgson will join the ranks of almost 30 other backpacker resorts currently operating in Perth and surrounding areas by November.

There has been a surge of new backpacker establishments in Perth in the past 18 months, with at least half a dozen new establishments opening.

Among the new additions are the Governor Robinson Backpackers, the Billabong Backpacker resort, the Sundancer backpackers, the old OBH, now known as Ocean Beach Back-packers, and the Underground Back-packers, formally Northbridge nightspot Arcadia.

Spokesperson for Ocean Beach Backpackers, Karen Ashcroft, said WA was rapidly becoming a national leader in backpacking resorts.

“WA has really been at the forefront – the community is realising that WA is becoming a major player,” she said.

“I think we are very competitive. You just have to look at the standard of the newer hostels – they are second to none.

“Obviously we get fewer people than backpackers on the east coast but our numbers are climbing steadily and (I think) the numbers can only go up.”

Ms Ashcroft said the major difference between regular tourists and backpackers was that normal tourists stayed for very short periods, while backpackers had a tendency to linger in one spot. The average backpacker stays in WA for 37 nights.

This not only affected the amount of money they spent, but added to their overall contribution to the community and the economy, because of their participation in the work force.

“The backpackers have a lot to

offer and the community is realis-

ing that now,” Ms Ashcroft said.

She said while there was a strong demand for an increased standard of accommodation, WA resorts were meeting that demand.

“The average backpacker is looking for comfort and cheap accommodation. If you can provide that in one package then you can’t really go wrong,” Ms Ashcroft said said.

Co-owner and manager of Underground Backpackers, Mike Powell, agreed the number of backpacker travellers had increased markedly in the past five years, but held grave reservations about the future of the market following the collapse of Ansett.

“Certainly the numbers have increased in a direct correlation to cheap air fares in the past six or seven years,” Mr Powell said.

“Without the events of September 11 and the demise of Ansett, I would have said ‘yes, the market will definitely increase’, but I’m pretty nervous about where the market is going to end up – because it is very dependent on budget air fares.

“I think WA will be definitely worst hit by this because of its isolation.”

Despite these upheavals and the fact that the business has only “tracked along marginally up on the previous year”, Mr Powell is still going ahead with his second stage of refurbishment, building a further 39 rooms.

“There is certainly a trend to increase standards and you need a greater number of beds to achieve critical mass and allow the business to be viable,” he said.

Mr Powell also said the amount of money backpackers were spending in WA on tours and tourism activities had increased since the early 1990s, principally because of of an increase in the number of activities available to them.

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