Birmingham says: “We understand the scale of the challenge for Tourism Australia to recover our appeal in market … [but] other nations have demonstrated you can bounce back from major disasters with a concerted and strategic effort.”
Australia has been hit with a mighty reality check. After leveraging off our clean, green image for years to attract tourists and students and sell everything from wine, meat and dairy, Australia has an image problem.
Global misinformation that the entire country is on fire aside, how an earth do we sell ourselves now?
Paul Hogan, arguably Australia’s most successful comedy export, is reverting to gallows humour in bleak times. The star of Crocodile Dundee (1986) and The Paul Hogan Show (1973-1984) helped create and starred in the 1984 “Come and Say G’Day” ads, aimed at the American market with such immortal lines as: “I’ll slip an extra shrimp on the barbie for you.”
Paul Hogan with a barbecue in the 1984 Tourism Australia Campaign “Come say G’Day”.  
“We’ve gone from inviting tourists over for a barbie to having one giant barbecue on our hands,” Hogan says from his home in Los Angeles. “I was in Australia for a month over Christmas, staying with my daughter on Sydney’s northern beaches. I saw the brown skies and felt the nation’s depression. It was awful.
“Australia is a fabulous place best country on earth. I don’t think emphasising how ugly it’s been or drawing attention to what’s happened helps. I guess it is all part of the disastrous climate change.
“One thing is for sure, if we don’t have tourists coming, it’s not good for anyone.”
Proud Queenslander Graham “Skroo” Turner co-founder and global boss of the world’s biggest travel agency Flight Centre agrees. He’s been selling Australia hard on the world stage since he washed up in London in the 1970s as a final year vet student who loved travel more than drenching cows.
“People often want to know where I travel they see me as a bit of an expert,” he quips as he drives from Brisbane up through classic Queensland coastal hinterland to an offsite Flight Centre board meeting near the tiny dot of a town, Maleny on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, an hour south from Noosa.
“Mainly, I stick around Australia,” Turner continues. The Rich Lister worth $851 million owns a sizeable chunk of Noosa, and has 13 luxury hotels in NSW and Queensland to stay at, run by his wife Jude Turner under the family’s Spicers Retreats banner, plus a wildlife conservation sanctuary.
“I’ve been to many countries and I’ve always kept coming back here. I tell friends overseas we’ve got it all, beaches, bike trails, vineyards, mountains and great coffee.”
It’s the sort of ‘money can’t buy’ publicity from one of the nation’s great entrepreneurs.
But it’s at this point that Turner’s well-worn script veers off track.
Ask him if “Brand Australia” can survive the fallout of the unprecedented fires that continue to blaze, and Turner is frank that the nation is at a crossroads.
“We’ve worked hard to be known as a great destination and you can spend all the money you like on campaigns and ads to re-promote us in light of the fires, and it will probably enhance our image a bit, sure.
“The issue for tourism in terms of Brand Australia is there is a perception that Australia and the Australian government is lacking in moving to accept climate change. Whether it’s true or not is another thing. It’s the perception that is damaging and will continue to be a negative for tourism.”
The government now faces disruption within its two biggest export markets behind coal and iron ore: tourism and education. Tourism employs one in 13 Australians and is worth $152 billion a year, where international tourist arrivals account for $45 billion of that figure second only in export earnings to mining. The international student business is just behind tourism, contributing in excess of $38 billion to our annual bottom line.
As councils and tour operators in fire-affected areas like the Blue Mountains and Kangaroo Island report mass cancellations, and as images of heavy smoke haze in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra continue to flash around the world, Australia’s English language schools are seeing a fall off in demand leading to the cancellation of some English language tours and short-term courses.
About 180,000 students enrolled in English language classes last year of which typically 70 per cent go onto study at an Australian university. But how many of them will want to live and study in smoke-choked cities surrounded by fire and drought?
“For Brand Australia, we need to reposition our reputation of safety,” says Brett Blacker, the chief executive of English Australia. “The problem is reports of, or misinformation about, air quality.
“Clean air is one of the things people come here for. That and the clean environment.”
Given the bushfires have become one of the most searched words on Google, there is cause for serious concern, adds PwC’s National Education and Skills Leader, David Sacks.
Over the decades, higher education has become a “microcosm” for the attractiveness of all of Australia, Sacks says. Although there’s no firm data showing a drop off for long-term enrolments yet, the main impact will be felt in this year’s second semester.
Given they too leverage off our clean, green, nature-loving marketing messaging, the organic produce, agricultural and wine industries are also starting to cry out. Tyrrell’s Wines of the Hunter Valley announced this week that for the first time since it was established in 1858, it will only produce 20 per cent of its usual output because “smoke taint” damages wine quality.
“I said to everyone that every decision we make is predicated on ‘will it do any damage to our brand’,” said Tyrrell Wines’ Managing Director Bruce Tyrrell, as he predicted a rush of similar announcements from other vineyards given smoke has been in the area for three months now.
For the record, Senator Birmingham commended the nation’s wine makers for protecting our brand by “only putting products of the highest standard in the international market.”
UBS included Australia’s biggest wine group, Treasury Wine Estates, on a list of 24 ASX-listed companies whose earnings may be fire affected.
Earlier this month, diversified dairy company Bega Cheese saw its shares drop 8.5 per cent to $3.95 due to fire in Bega Valley, while Coles and Woolworths could also still be affected due to disrupted supply chains.
Water contamination due to ash, smoke and fire retardant being blown about in high winds present yet another nightmare.
“There’s no three-word slogan that will do it you can’t advertise your way out of these things,” says tourism industry stalwart Bob East, heralding we’ll be in salvage mode for some time yet when it comes to our image on the world stage.
While declining to comment on climate change, East says “you can’t go out and assume the consumer’s head is in the same space as three months ago. Clearly everyone is grappling with the wall-to-wall media coverage the bushfires have produced, but it’s not as simple as sending a message out,” he says.
East is Chair of Tourism Australia and has sat on countless other government tourism boards. He’s also a member of Austrade’s National Brand Advisory Council, which includes Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, Qantas boss Alan Joyce, and Atlassian co-founder and co-chief executive Mike Cannon-Brookes. In November last year, Qantas joined British Airways owner IAG in pledging to slash its carbon emissions to zero by 2050, with Joyce saying it was “the responsible thing to do” and labelling climate change as “real”.
East says the federal government funded body is conducting research in key markets to assess potential brand damage and “refine” what would push holidaymakers to still book a trip Down Under, he says.
“You need to work out how to pitch Australia and how to activate a market to get excited by Australia,” East says. “In some markets, there is more heavy lifting [required] than three months ago. But there are many good things happening. We just have to find out which of those stories resonate with each market.”
How events of the past few months ultimately tarnish Brand Australia still has a long way to run. The financial losses are only beginning to be calculated.
The tourism industry’s two peak bodies, the Australian Tourism Export Council and the Australian Tourism Industry Council, have put the estimated cost to tourism this year at $4.5 billion and $6.5 billion respectively, where the ATEC figures are based on losing 10 per cent of the $45 billion international market.
As a bandaid measure, the federal government threw an extra $76 million relief package at tourism operators, $20 million of which includes a new “stay home” domestic campaign, encouraging Australians to “Holiday here this year” and help operators get back on their feet. It came on top of the federal governments initial $2 billion bushfire recovery fund.
But industry leaders like Turner are sceptical as to whether this will cut it.
“Consumers today are looking for you to prove your [environmental] credentials so that’s a bit of work Tourism Australia and the industry needs to do to make sure we can be true to our proposition,” says former head of Tourism Australia (from 2010-2014), Andrew McEvoy.
McEvoy strongly agrees that the global discussion around climate change and Australia’s perceived reluctance to fully tackle it is damaging our brand. “We are seen as a people who don’t believe in it. In this sense, there has been brand damage to Australia apart from the physical and this damage will take even longer to recover from.”
In the 2020s, Australia won’t get away with promoting a “beautiful country of fresh air and green credentials,” without taking a stand on climate change in line with the very values we’re spruiking to reel in dollars.
For his part, Senator Birmingham reinforces what the government is doing on cutting emissions and sourcing renewable energy, while querying if there is “overlap” or a “correlation” between potential travellers intending to visit Australia and the federal government’s climate policies. Any impact there would be “very minor”, he said.
But he acknowledges we must “in a very honest and truthful way, make sure people understand the experiences to be had in Australia are still amazing, including wonderful outdoor experiences among the amazing wildlife and demonstrate how much of the nation remains untouched.”
That the industry has made huge inroads since Tourism Australia was officially founded in 2004 as the agency responsible for promoting the nation to the world should make the job of repairing our image slightly easier.
Then again, it also leaves us wide open to criticism if we don’t have our proverbial greenhouse in order.
A record 9.3 million international visitors arrived in 2018-19, up 5.5 per cent on 2017, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. China, the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Japan comprise our key source markets.
For all those markets, nature-based activities, wilderness wanderings and regional food and wine trails rate among the most popular reasons to visit Australia, along with seeing iconic sites such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House and the Blue Mountains in NSW; the Great Barrier Reef and Whitsundays in Queensland and the Northern Territory’s Uluru.
Of the 158 countries belonging to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Australia ranked number 40 for overall arrivals in 2018.
The key Tourism Australia marketing campaigns over the past few years, including the $180 million “Where the Bloody Hell Are You” (2006) and $250 million “There’s Nothing Like Australia” (2012) and now Philausophy (2019) have all showcased our emptiness, beaches, diverse natural wonders, unique wildlife and pristine wilderness along with the quirky locals, excellent coffee, and bustling cities.
The messaging ranges from bikini-clad Lara Bingle standing on the deserted white-sand Fingal Spit beach at Port Stephens in NSW, to Chris Hemsworth celebrating nothing but “37,000 miles [59,546 kilometres] of pristine bloody beautiful beach mate” as he drove Danny McBride along the northern Queensland coastline in the $US27 million ($38 million) advertisement masquerading as a fake movie trailer, Dundee: The Son of a Legend Returns (2018).
The million-dollar marketing question now is how you balance it with the new suite of images that just keep on rolling, with three American, Canadian firefighters tragically killed this week when their air tanker crashed and six Rural Fire Service volunteers in hospital with severe injuries after their truck rolled on the South Coast.
The $1600 a night, 21-suite “rugged luxury” Southern Ocean Lodge, formerly located on a windswept cliff on Kangaroo Island, provides one of the best microcosm examples of the branding hit we’ve taken.
In 2012, SOL and its surroundings headlined a $45 million key plank of the wider “There’s Nothing Like Australia” campaign; multiple images of the 21-suite lodge were used in the cinema and television ads, including shots of a young girl patting a wallaby on the beach below the lodge. The ad was launched by Tourism Australia in Shanghai; its many images of lush natural beauty providing a welcome contrast to polluted, grey Shanghai.
On January 3, SOL burnt to the ground in a firestorm that turned the sky black. Other properties and swathes of Kangaroo Island were lost. The lodge’s co-owner, Hayley Baillie, immediately called for the Australian government to acknowledge the “bigger picture” issues at play.
“Our tourism industry is passionate and resilient, [but] if we don’t come out with a strong climate change message, that will be shameful, Ms Baillie told The Australian Financial Review a few days after SOL was lost.
As is the case with the Blue Mountains, Kangaroo Island is a key destination for international travellers and bookings have plummeted accordingly. The Blue Mountains says forward bookings are down 70 to 90 per cent year-on-year, with heavy cancellations also rolling in.
The South Australian Tourism Commission estimated Kangaroo Island expenditure would net $168 million by the end of this year, up from $126 million in 2018. Now local operators like the island’s Seaside Inn owner Chris Schumann fear tourism will collapse if cancellations continue at current rates. In a sign of the gravity of the situation, South Australian Premier Steven Marshall announced on January 11 he was taking over the state’s tourism portfolio.
Turning to the bigger picture, Turner provides more heartening figures. The UK and New Zealand are Flight Centre’s main markets that sell into Australia. “Our people in the UK tell me there’s been some downturn, but not dramatic maybe ten per cent,” Turner says. “New Zealand is a lot of VFR (visiting friends and relatives) and business travel, and does not seem to be affected. The USA and Canada will be down but the numbers are small so far.”
Another Tourism Australia boss (2014-2019) now CEO of ASX-listed Experience Co, John O’Sullivan, says after an initial correction which happens the world over following any major incident, be it fires, hurricanes or a terrorist attack the dip in arrivals will “start to cycle out”.
“Most of Australia remains open for business,” he says. “As tragic as what’s happened … I don’t think you need to rebrand Australia. For me, it’s about getting the tactical response right what TA is going to do with that money and how to lure visitors back.”
Hayley’s husband, James Baillie, adds “we need to focus on messaging and education; we need to add perspective to the media saturation that has occurred. We could never have imagined our SOL being prime time news in so many countries, the images were apocalyptic.
“However our industry needs to be on the front foot and pull together which it is”.
Turner agrees if the fires now stay contained, it will cycle out. But he remains staunch that when it comes to the big picture around Brand Australia that this experience needs to be leveraged not only to prove our resilience but to show the world that Australia is moving in a more innovative direction.
Turner is upfront about emissions from long haul travel, but argues at least you can carbon offset and that other factors to do with climate change are more pressing, including population growth and land clearing.
He says core climate change issues like population growth, energy consumption, land clearing and addressing the fact Australia has the greatest rate of mammalian extinction in the world, must go on the table.
“We need a long-term marketing strategy based on building up our wildlife, preserving their habitat and bringing our human population growth back to reasonable levels, as well as showing we take climate change seriously and are prepared to set the example,” Turner says.
After all, if we’re going to encourage the world to come see our wildlife in its native habitats under clean, green Brand Australia, we better be ready to answer what we’re doing to protect the natural assets we’re so keen to showcase.
With additional reporting by Robert Bolton.
Fiona Carruthers is the AFR’s Travel Editor and edits Sophisticated Traveller. A special sustainable travel issue of ST is out in the Financial Review on Friday February 21.