1. Introduction

Tourism in Northern Australia

Every year, millions of tourists choose Northern Australia1 as their holiday destination.2 Northern Australia’s stark and contrasting natural beauty is a scenic drawcard for visitors and features diverse landscapes of: coral reefs, beaches, tropical rainforests, desert, lakes and mountains. The opportunity to observe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and participate in a cultural tourism experience also appeals to many visitors. Being able to experience Northern Australia first hand is the lure of drive tourism and ‘grey nomads’, travelling in caravans and motor homes, is now a familiar sight across the north.
Despite these attractions, growth of the tourism industry across Northern Australia is ‘not consistent.’3 Some regions of Northern Australia have experienced increasing visitor numbers and a lengthening of the peak tourist season. Parts of north Queensland, for example, have seen an uptake in visitation and investment interest over recent years.4 Uluru (an iconic destination) has also recently experienced higher than average tourism growth, with the Ayers Rock Resort experiencing ‘record occupancy’ levels in 2016-2017.5 The Outback Queensland Tourism Association also reported that ‘over the past three years [to 2017], visitation to the Outback [Queensland] region increased [by] 12.3 per cent to 539 000.’6 The Cocos (Keeling) Islands have similarly seen visitation increase ‘year-on-year.’7
Other destinations in Northern Australia have had less success in maintaining and/or increasing visitor numbers. Northern Western Australia has experienced a decline in tourist numbers and a shortening of its peak tourist season.8 Kakadu Tourism stated that visitor numbers to Kakadu National Park have decreased over recent years and, despite an ‘encouraging turnaround’ in 2016, there is ‘still … a declining trend.’9
The Queensland Tourism Industry Council advised that, while visitor growth in north Queensland was strong, it was ‘less strong than in the southern part’ of Queensland, with domestic visitors to Queensland less likely to head north than international visitors.10

Opportunities for Attracting Tourism

There are a range of untapped opportunities which have the potential to stimulate the growth of Northern Australia’s tourism industry. Many wilderness areas located in Northern Australia are largely pristine and, with adequate investment, may be developed into and marketed as premium ecotourism destinations. Infrastructure improvements in combination with the facilitation of private investment for national parks has the potential to expand the existing range and quality of nature based tourism experiences on offer in the north.
Northern Australia’s rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture continues to present a unique tourism experience. International and domestic demand for cultural tourism experiences in Northern Australia is growing,11 which signals a need to develop new, as well as expand existing, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tourism ventures. Stimulating tourism investment in regional and remote communities could also create a source of additional and sustainable employment into the future.12
Drive tourism is another key segment of the tourism market in regional and remote Northern Australia. The progressive upgrading and sealing of roads across the north would attract higher numbers of drive tourists to more destinations and may also encourage tourists to extend their stay.
From an international perspective, Northern Australia has been described as ‘Australia’s gateway to the Asia Pacific region.’13 Naturally, this presents a major opportunity for Northern Australia to capture a share of the ever growing visitor market from Asia.

Challenges to Attracting Tourism

While visitor numbers and levels of industry growth differ across the northern regions, there are a number of challenges common to the Northern Australia tourism industry. Firstly, tourism marketing and promotion can be a challenge for some northern destinations which struggle to compete with the appeal of the southern states and more affordable tourism destinations close by in Asia. Regional and remote destinations in particular may not have access to marketing funding or capability. Further, there may be coordination and duplication issues in marketing Northern Australia, across three separate jurisdictions, as a single destination.
The vast expanse and varying terrain of Northern Australia, together with the remoteness of, and at times long distances between, many known tourist destinations makes transport infrastructure a critical aspect of sustaining the tourism industry in Northern Australia. Currently, many roads throughout the north are unsealed, which can make it less attractive and more difficult for tourists to travel widely within limited timeframes. Flights to Northern Australia are, in some cases, described as expensive, while limited direct flight routes between tourist destinations within Northern Australia is also seen as negatively impacting on tourism numbers. The cruise industry has the potential to bring hundreds of tourists to Northern Australia, but many ports would need to upgrade existing infrastructure to be able to adequately support large cruise ships.
In addition to marketing and infrastructure challenges, regulatory processes regarding access to land, labour hire, and permits and approvals may also act as impediments for individuals who would like to establish a tourism business, are running a tourism business, or are looking to expand operations. The time, expense and complexity of some regulatory processes, particularly those involving multiple jurisdictions, are particularly burdensome for small businesses and could also cause potential investors to look elsewhere.

Future of Northern Australia’s Tourism Industry

There is no shortage of potential in Northern Australia’s tourism industry. If the above challenges are met and opportunities are captured, the north could see increasing international and domestic visitation to a wider range of tourism destinations over more months of the year, as well as more tourists returning for repeat visits. Success will also involve destinations across Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Queensland partnering and coordinating to create authentic and unique northern tourism experiences that are world renowned. Most importantly, the success of the tourism industry will enable the sustainable growth of Northern Australia’s economy, and provide an additional source of employment, and long term career path, for Northern Australians.

Previous Inquiries and Reports

Pivot North: Inquiry into the Development of Northern Australia

In September 2014 the Committee’s predecessor, the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia, released its report Pivot North: Inquiry into the Development of Northern Australia (Pivot North). Pivot North included 42 recommendations relating to opportunities for, and impediments to, developing Northern Australia. Two of these specifically related to tourism in Northern Australia and recommended that the Australian Government:
develop a tourism strategy for promoting Northern Australia, in conjunction with the Northern Australia Strategic Partnership, which would highlight natural assets and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture; and
‘build upon significant cultural and artistic events, and programs including the promotion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts, to increase participation in, and the public profile of, artistic and cultural activities in Northern Australia.’ 14
Many of Pivot North’s other recommendations, while not specifically related to tourism, also have an impact on the tourism industry and are relevant to this inquiry. These include the recommendations regarding transport infrastructure, insurance premiums, telecommunications, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses and employment, land tenure and travel costs.15

Our North, Our Future: White Paper on Developing Northern Australia

Subsequently in 2015 and complementary to the findings in Pivot North, the Australian Government released Our North, Our Future: White Paper on Developing Northern Australia (the White Paper). The White Paper named tourism and hospitality as one of the ‘five industry pillars that play to Australia’s strengths and have the most potential for growth.’16
The White Paper outlined a number of actions to develop Northern Australia. Actions that support the tourism industry included:
Measures relating to land tenure, native title and pastoral leases;
Actions to stimulate business trade and investment, which included investigation into lowering the cost of insurance in the north; establishing the Northern Australia Tourism Initiative; funding to boost Indigenous Ranger programs; and visitor visa reform to attract tourists from China and India;
Establishing the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility and providing infrastructure funding for roads and air services, and
reforms to foreign worker programs to attract workers to the north.17

About the Inquiry

Objectives and Scope

On 24 November 2016, the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Senator the Hon Matthew Canavan, referred the Inquiry into Opportunities and Methods for Stimulating the Tourism Industry in Northern Australia (the inquiry) to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia (the Committee) for inquiry and report.
Over the course of the inquiry, the Committee examined the current state of the tourism industry across Northern Australia, as well as impediments to and opportunities for growth in the industry. Issues which were a focus of the inquiry included:
Domestic and international visitor trends and the contribution of the tourism industry to Northern Australia’s economy.
The role of federal, state, territory and local governments in developing and promoting tourism and the tourism industry. This included a focus on marketing, transport and telecommunications infrastructure, and regulatory and workforce issues.
Challenges facing tourism operators and entrepreneurs in establishing, funding and growing tourism businesses, and the types of tourism products and experiences that reflect Northern Australia’s strengths and have the most potential for sustained growth.
The unique opportunities and challenges for islands in Northern Australia that rely on tourism as their main industry, with case studies examining the Indian Ocean Territories (IOTs), Hamilton Island and Great Keppel Island.

Inquiry Conduct

On 24 November 2016 the Committee launched the inquiry and called for submissions to be received by 16 February 2017. The Committee invited submissions from organisations and individuals including tourism organisations, peak bodies, tourism businesses, airline operators and federal, state and territory governments.
The inquiry received 115 submissions and 55 exhibits, which are listed at Appendix A and B respectively. The Committee subsequently held 22 public hearings in Canberra, the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia, which are listed in Table 1.1. The Committee also conducted seven days of inspections.
The Committee held two private briefings with the Inland Queensland Roads Action Plan Working Group and the Outback Highway Development Council on 16 February 2017 and 8 February 2018. The information presented to the Committee in these briefings was deemed useful as part of the inquiry.
Initially (within a seven-month period), the Committee intended to hold public hearings and inspections in all jurisdictions within Northern Australia, with the inclusion of the IOTs. The Committee undertook to visit a range of destinations across the north to ensure a range of stakeholders, particularly small tourism businesses and tourism organisations, had the opportunity to present their views to the Committee in person.
The Committee adapted its visit program on a number of occasions, in part due to Tropical Cyclone Debbie, and the availability and timing of flights to remote areas of Northern Australia. The Committee subsequently visited Hamilton Island and Airlie Beach in June 2017 to survey the impact of the Cyclone and its impact on tourism.
The Committee placed an importance on specifically visiting the IOTs to hear from tourism operators and investors, and local residents. In particular, the Committee’s predecessor, the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia (while unable to visit) had specifically identified the IOTs as being an important part of the Northern Australia economy which adds value to the overall development and sustainability of the region.
As the inquiry progressed, the interrelationship between tourism issues and other aspects of economic development which the Committee’s predecessor had examined in Pivot North, resurfaced. These issues related to transport, infrastructure, regulation, and employment.

Previous Reports and Inquiries on the Indian Ocean Territories18

The Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories (JSCNCET) has produced a number of reports regarding the economy of the IOTs. In 2015, the JSCNCET released Governance in the Indian Ocean Territories – Interim Report: Economic Development (interim report).
The interim report outlined three recommendations for the Australian Government to: facilitate the reopening of the Christmas Island Casino and conduct an appropriate process to assess private sector proposals to operate the casino; facilitate the provision of educational services to international students on the IOTs; and call for expressions of interest for the delivery of freight by sea to the IOTs for government goods, followed by a full tender process if necessary.19
In 2016, the JSCNCET released its final report Governance in the Indian Ocean Territories – Final Report: Economic Development and Governance. The report included 19 recommendations, four of which focussed on tourism. These included recommending that:
visitors to the IOTs be required to fill out a visitor information card in order to improve visitor data collection;
the Australian Government negotiate a Service Delivery Arrangement to enable the IOTs to access tourism support services provided by Tourism WA;
Tourism Australia formalise its relationship with the IOT tourism associations; and
airlines that are interested in providing international flights to Christmas Island be exempt from paying landing and security fees for 12 months.20
In 2012, the JSCNCET released its Report on the Visit to the IOTs, 21-25 October 2012. This report made 25 recommendations, including that Christmas Island Casino be reopened, and also that the Australian Government:
… commit to the implementation of existing strategies commissioned by the Commonwealth to develop tourism in the Indian Ocean Territories, and develop long term arrangements to secure air services, including subsidising flights to Asia, and improve tourism-related infrastructure and facilities.21
In addition to the JSCNCET reports, Pivot North recommended that the Australian Government ‘commit to facilitating the approval process to enable reopening of the Christmas Island Casino’ for the purpose of stimulating tourism.22 Another recommendation was that the Australian Government take measures to reduce insurance premiums in Northern Australian locations including the IOTs.23
The tourism industry on the IOTs faces unique challenges due to its remoteness, governance and funding arrangements, and economic circumstances. As such, tourism on the IOTs formed a case study for this inquiry, and is considered in depth in Chapter 6.
Table 1.1:  Public Hearings Held
17 February 2017
Canberra, ACT
25 June 2017
Hamilton Island, Qld
26 June 2017
Airlie Beach, Qld
3 July 2017
Port Douglas, Qld
4 July 2017
Cairns, Qld
5 July 2017
Townsville, Qld
6 July 2017
Brisbane, Qld
23 July 2017
Yulara, NT
24 July 2017
Alice Springs, NT
27 July 2017
Darwin, NT
21 August 2017
Broome, WA
22 August 2017
Broome, WA
23 August 2017
Perth, WA
14 September 2017
Canberra, ACT
19 October 2017
Canberra, ACT
20 October 2017
Canberra, ACT
7 December 2017
Canberra, ACT
29 January 2018
Christmas Island
31 January 2018
West Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands
31 January 2018
Home Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands
1 May 2018
Yeppoon, Qld
25 May 2018
Canberra, ACT

Report Structure

Chapter 2 provides an overview of international and domestic visitation to Northern Australia and the economic contribution of the tourism industry. Tourism funding initiatives for Northern Australia are also examined.
Chapter 3 discusses the promotion of Northern Australian tourism, including domestic and international marketing campaigns; cooperation between marketing bodies; and marketing opportunities such as events, digital marketing, holiday packages and film and television promotion.
Chapter 4 outlines how transport infrastructure supports the tourism industry, including roads, airports and flight routes, sea ports, and rail.
Chapter 5 focuses on issues relating to the development of the tourism industry, such as planning and investment, support for tourism operators and entrepreneurs, costs and regulation for businesses, and telecommunication and social infrastructure.
Chapter 6 considers opportunities for broadening the tourism experience, including cultural, environmental, drive, industrial and educational tourism. This chapter also presents three tourism case studies which outline challenges and opportunities for tourism in the IOTs, Hamilton Island, and Great Keppel Island.

  • 1
    The Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia is tasked with examining policies and matters relevant to Northern Australia which includes: the whole of the Northern Territory, parts of Queensland and Western Australia which lie north of the Tropic of Capricorn, as well as the Indian Ocean Territories.
  • 2
    Office of Northern Australia, Submission 39, p. 3.
  • 3
    Office of Northern Australia, Submission 39, p. 3.
  • 4
    Office of Northern Australia, Submission 39, p. 3.
  • 5
    Indigenous Land Corporation and Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, Submission 66, p. 3.
  • 6
    Outback Queensland Tourism Association, Submission 20, p. 2.
  • 7
    Administrator of the Indian Ocean Territories, Submission 81, p. 3.
  • 8
    Office of Northern Australia, Submission 39, p. 4.
  • 9
    Kakadu Tourism, Submission 8, p. 1.
  • 10
    Mr Daniel Gschwind, Chief Executive, Queensland Tourism Industry Council, Official Committee Hansard, Brisbane, 6 July 2017, p. 8.
  • 11
    Northern Territory Department of Tourism and Culture, Submission 23, p. 5.
  • 12
    Ecotourism Australia, Submission 13 Attachment A, p. 1.
  • 13
    Office of Northern Australia, Submission 39, p. 3.
  • 14
    Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia, Pivot North: Inquiry into the Development of Northern Australia, p. 174.
  • 15
    Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia, Pivot North: Inquiry into the Development of Northern Australia, pp 165-196.
  • 16
    Australian Government, Our North, Our Future: White Paper on Developing Northern Australia, p. 3.
  • 17
    Australian Government, Our North, Our Future: White Paper on Developing Northern Australia, pp 11-14.
  • 18
    The IOTs consists of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Christmas Island is located approximately 2600 kilometres (km) northwest of Perth and 500 km south of Jakarta, Indonesia. The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are located 975 km south-west of Christmas Island and 2900 km north-west of Perth. West Island and Home Island are two of the 27 Cocos (Keeling) Islands which are permanently inhabited.
  • 19
    Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories (JSCNCET), Governance in the Indian Ocean Territories – Interim Report: Economic Development, p. xv.
  • 20
    JSCNCET, Governance in the Indian Ocean Territories – Final Report: Economic Development and Governance, pp xix-xx.
  • 21
    JSCNCET, Report on the Visit to the IOTs, 21-25 October 2012, p. xvi.
  • 22
    Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia, Pivot North: Inquiry into the Development of Northern Australia, p. 174.
  • 23
    Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia, Pivot North: Inquiry into the Development of Northern Australia, p. 170.

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