23/03/2016 - 12:05

Top tourism product but sales still slow

23/03/2016 - 12:05

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SPECIAL REPORT: Unprecedented levels of private and public spending have WA on the cusp of becoming a tourism hotspot, but the state’s reputation as Australia’s quarry remains as a challenge.

WELL PLACED: Stephanie Buckland says WA is on the cusp of a tourism boom. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Unprecedented levels of private and public spending have WA on the cusp of becoming a tourism hotspot, but the state’s reputation as Australia’s quarry remains as a challenge.

Western Australia ticks all the boxes in terms of the must-have attributes normally associated with a perfect holiday destination.

The beaches along the state’s lengthy coastline are clean and safe, the weather is good, and the food and wine are fresh and of high quality – all things that are close to the top of most travellers’ vacation lists.

The state government has done its part, too, with a raft of initiatives and infrastructure spending having improved WA’s offering.

Since 2010, when the state government introduced a new tourism strategy, Elizabeth Quay has been built, the world-class Perth Arena was opened, and construction began on the new Perth Stadium.

The private sector is also getting on board, led by the world’s biggest hoteliers, which are clamouring to get a foothold in the WA hospitality sector.

Hotel construction is at unprecedented levels, fuelled by state government incentives for hotel developers.

At time of writing, there were 2,047 new hotel rooms under construction in Perth, highlighted by Crown Resorts’ Crown Towers and the luxury Westin Hotel being built at 480 Hay Street.

Work is expected to begin soon on the Ritz-Carlton hotel at Elizabeth Quay, which forms part of 3,164 hotel rooms planned for the city, in addition to those already under way. Probuild won the construction contract this month.

Hilton is backing Perth in a big way, with plans for four properties under its DoubleTree and Hampton brands in the pipeline, while others with their eye on Perth include the prominent Marriott, Starwood Hotels and Sheraton hotel chains.

The main entry point to WA, Perth Airport, is also confident of the state’s tourism prospects.

Perth Airport is midway through a $1 billion upgrade, to bring the arrivals experience into line with the top airports in the world, and also to attract new airlines and routes, particularly through the Middle East and Asia, through to Europe and beyond.

Five new international airlines have started servicing Perth since 2010, and total aviation capacity is up by 30 per cent, which has opened the city up to new markets.

Smaller private operators are also increasing the tourism offering available in WA.

Tourism Council WA chief executive Evan Hall told Business News more than 2,000 jobs were created in the state’s tourism sector in 2015, with the amount of attractions, adventures and activities on offer at an all-time high.

With all that activity it seems counterintuitive that international visitors to the state grew at the lowest rate in the nation in 2015, while the number of interstate visitors actually went backwards, according to the latest national visitor survey by Tourism Research Australia.

However, it seems Western Australians have realised they’ve got a good thing on their doorstep. A lower Australian dollar and stuttering economy may have helped.

Figures from the national visitors survey showed $3.7 billion was spent by Western Australians as they holidayed at home in 2015, up 15.8 per cent from 2014.

That’s a big chunk of the $9 billion that was spent by all tourists in WA in 2015, while the total is also inching closer to the state government’s goal of $12 billion in tourism spending by 2020.

Mr Hall said perception was the key to attracting a higher number of interstate and international visitors.

“On the east coast of Australia, there is no doubt in my mind that we are dealing with a reputation problem, where we are still perceived to be an expensive mining town,” Mr Hall told Business News.

“They are still making jokes about the price of a cup of coffee and the price of a hotel.

“Our job is to get them to look, but they’re not looking. If they looked, they would see the hotels are cheaper, but until they start looking we will have to live with that reputation. A reputation, once earned, is hard to shed.”

Mr Hall said the only way to change the state’s image would be to sell WA better, and that started with Perth.

He said Perth needed a unique experience it could call its own, like a cable car running from Elizabeth Quay to Kings Park. “We feel that we lack the one signature experience that people recognise as being Perth,” he said.

“One of the missing pieces for us is what we would call a hero product or an experience that people would be able to say ‘that’s Perth’; like the bridge climb is for Sydney, the Eiffel Tower is for Paris or the laneways are for Melbourne.

“Elizabeth Quay is fantastic but there are plenty of places in the world where you can walk by a river and have an ice cream. We just need a little bit more.”

Tourism WA chief executive Stephanie Buckland agreed that marketing was the key, while also putting forward the notion that Rottnest Island, and its lovable marsupial inhabitants, could be the key to establishing that unique identity.

“I don’t think we can underestimate the pulling power of Australian wildlife to an international visitor, because it’s so unique,” Ms Buckland said.

She said the quokkas on Rottnest were among the state’s big drawcards.

“We have a lot of international guests coming to WA and going to Rottnest Island specifically so they can see the quokkas and get a selfie,” Ms Buckland said.

She said the rapid transformation of the state’s hospitality sector was also a prime selling point.

“It’s about how we package that up and promote that, particularly to attract visitors from interstate and overseas,” Ms Buckland said.

“Our distinct advantage in Perth is that we’ve got all of those things that one would expect from a modern and vibrant city happening now; five to seven years ago that wasn’t the case, and in addition to that you’ve got that wrapped in this beautiful natural environment.

“Particularly for people that are coming from some of the cities in Asia, that’s a really unique selling point.”

But smaller operators still face challenges when it comes to marketing their offering.

Busselton Jetty chief executive Lisa Shreeve said the proliferation of tourism organisations and publications meant it wasn’t always easy to know where a campaign should be targeted.

“Being a small non-profit group, and we’re also finding this with places like the Tree Top Walks and the Dolphin Discovery Centre, we get bombarded with people saying ‘come and buy this, come and do this’, and it’s about making the best decisions for your business and not getting ripped off,” Ms Shreeve told Business News.

“I’ve spoken to Tourism WA and the Tourism Council WA to get some better advice as to who the charlatans are in the industry, and they do run courses, but I think it’s deeper than that.

“They need to get more involved at the grassroots level about what we should be doing marketing-wise, and pooling our efforts so we’re not spending money and wasting it.

“There are just so many different tourism bodies to be involved in and it’s hard to sort the wood from the trees sometimes.”

River run

Ms Buckland said while Perth’s natural assets were clearly an attractor, there was always an opportunity to utilise them better.

Ms Buckland said she hoped the opening of Elizabeth Quay would help lead to greater connectivity with other landmarks on the Swan River, from the Burswood Peninsula to Fremantle, including attractions in-between, such as South Perth and Matilda Bay.

She said the move to amalgamate the Swan River Trust with the Department of Parks and Wildlife last year would likely have a positive impact in increasing the use of the river for tourist-related operations.

“(The department) certainly has a track record in a lot of our other protected areas of introducing environmentally sensitive development,” Ms Buckland said.

“There are also a couple of private operators that would probably be really keen; Rottnest Express has done a tremendous amount in recent years and Captain Cook cruises, just purchased by SeaLink, which is looking to increase that operation.

“The formula is for government to be willing to consider the river as an asset and the private sector to see that there is a business opportunity there.”

However, getting a tourism operation up and running on the river has been a difficult proposition in recent years.

Private operator Catalina Adventures entered the state’s tourism sector in 2012, buying the popular Swan Jet Boats business that operates out of Barrack Square.

Catalina Adventures owner Mack McCormack had bigger plans, aiming to add seaplane tours to Rottnest, the South West and the Abrolhos Islands to the mix.

More than three years of bureaucratic wrangling have resulted in the seaplanes only doing environmental trials from the preferred landing spot west of the narrows bridge, and not a single tour taking place.

Another private operator is Go Boats, an initiative yet to be introduced to the Swan River by entrepreneur Yvonne Larsen.

Ms Larsen experienced the Go Boats, which are low-speed hire boats that tourists can operate without the need for a skipper’s ticket, in Copenhagen, Denmark, last year, and set about bringing them to WA.

“Our rivers are so underutilised; if you do get on the river it has to be a rigid scheduled time and that didn’t work for me,” Ms Larsen said.

AMBITION: Yvonne Larsen wants to help visitors experience the best of the Swan River. Photo: Attila Csaszar

“When I go to a different country or a different state, I want to see what’s behind the whole thing.

“With these boats, you can tour all our waterways and get a different view of the city.”

But Ms Larsen said establishing the Go Boats, which she’s keen to start operating out of Elizabeth Quay in May, has been anything but smooth sailing.

“The Swan River Trust has been a bit of a challenge, and the City of Perth has been as well, getting things through there,” she said.

“It’s too costly and too long of a process to do anything. They love the concept, it’s all in their strategic planning for 2020, so they want it, but getting help, not so much.”

Experience economy

One of the biggest behavioural shifts by tourists in recent times has been towards experiences and adventure, rather than simply being photographed in front of a city’s iconic sites.

Segway Tours WA director Belinda Hill said passive visitors who simply took snapshots were a thing of the past.

Since setting up at Barrack Square in 2013, Segway Tours WA has expanded to Rottnest Island, while it also expects to run tours in Fremantle later this year.

“If it’s close to water and it’s close to other things to do, and it’s adventure, that’s what people want to do,” Ms Hill said.

“People want to do things, they are really active these days, rather than just passive tourists.”

With that in mind, engineer by trade and self-described Perth enthusiast Adie Chapman set up Oh Hey WA, a walking tour operator along similar lines to the successful Two Feet and a Heartbeat tour company.

Oh Hey WA offers three different types of tour – one celebrating the city’s history, art and architecture, another allowing tourists a sample of Perth’s thriving small bar scene, and the Perth Quest, an Amazing Race-style scavenger hunt through the CBD

Ms Chapman said the explorations allowed visitors and locals alike to get a feel for Perth, which hadn’t always been easy.

EXPLORER: Adie Chapman is introducing visitors and locals to the hidden attractions of the inner city. Photo: Attila Csaszar

“If you rock up in London, you know where everything is and you know what you’re going to see,” Ms Chapman told Business News.

“Everything is right there and in your face; but in Perth it’s not so obvious what there is to see.

“WA is so amazing, there are so many cool things, and there is such a range of different things as well. I don’t think people know that. It’s all about showing people what there is to see, showing people our amazing beaches and showing people someone like me talking about Perth.”

Goldfields Tourism Network manager Neil McGilp said getting the word out was also the key challenge for the inland regions, with most marketing of the state focusing on coastal areas.

But Mr McGilp said there was a diverse range of outback adventures and experiences in the Goldfields, for those willing to go off the beaten track to find the real WA.

“We are sort of swamped by the bigger-name destinations that have had a lot more marketing done to promote themselves,” he said.

“Obviously you have to promote what’s going to bring people in, but on the other hand if they just see those areas you have lost the opportunity to get people out into the rest of the regions, which have some wonderful attractions to see.”

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