Just as the American journalist James Fallows believes modern China can be viewed through the prism of its aviation industry, I have long thought that a pretty good study of modern-day Australia could be written by examining its tourism sector.
Like shrimp on a barbeque, there are so many juicy morsels from which to choose. The quest for national identity; changing ideas about Australia's place in the world; how the global view of 'the land down under' is based still on clichés and outdated stereotypes.
Tourism exposes the city versus bush divide and the interstate rivalries that speak of Australia's fragmentary federation. The industry row of the moment, for instance, centres on the failure of Tourism Australia's new advertising campaign to include any images of the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.
For our purposes, the sector also offers useful lessons about Australia in the Asian century, because an Anglo-centric mindset is being overtaken by Asia-centric thinking. Visitors from New Zealand, the UK and US used to be the core customers (the controversial 'Where the Bloody Hell Are You?' campaign was pretty much meaningless elsewhere). Now it is the Chinese upon whom the sector is increasingly reliant.
In 2010, China became Australia's biggest inbound tourism market, and is now the most rapidly expanding market. Over 500,000 Chinese visited Australia in 2011, an almost 20% increase on 2010. By 2020, Chinese visitors are projected to inject up to $9 billion into the Australian economy, double their present contribution.
No other sector of the Australian economy has tried so hard to understand this emerging market. As part of its China 2020 Strategy, Tourism Australia conducted research not only in the primary cities but also the secondary. It showed there were big opportunities for Australian operators in places one would expect — Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou — but also in secondary cities like Chongqing, Nanjing, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Wuhan and Xiamen. As a result, Tourism Australia will expand its marketing from 13 cities to 30 by 2020.
The research also revealed the strength of the Australian brand in China. In the global ranking of 'must visit' holiday destinations, Australia comes out on top, beating Hawaii, the Maldives and France. When it gauged global responses to its new 'There's Nothing Like Australia' advertising campaign, the most positive reaction came from China. In the upper echelons of Chinese society (the people who can afford to travel to Australia) there is clearly both a curiosity and a prevailing sense of goodwill. Time, distance, and cost were the three main reasons for not visiting. But Australia has a bucket-list allure.
Tourism Australia has also been good at Chinese networking. Since Australia gained 'approved destination status' in 1999 (prior to the introduction of ADS status in the early 1990s, travel abroad was allowed only for business and government-approved purposes) TA has built up a 5000-strong infrastructure of 'Aussie specialist' agents in China.
Independent operators have made major inroads. Sovereign Hill, an outdoor museum in Ballarat that recreates the feel of the mid-nineteenth century gold rush, now has four staff in China. It first set up shop there 20 years ago to attract Chinese visitors keen to learn how their forebears chased fortunes in Australia. Sovereign Hill has Mandarin-speaking guides and even a bespoke China tour. It has now attracted over a million Chinese visitors.
State governments are also playing catch-up. The Victorian Government is running a Chinese cultural awareness program aimed at tourism operators and it's spending $8 million on marketing Victoria in China. Chinese visitors are asked to complete exit surveys at Melbourne Airport.
The Chinese influence looks set to change the character of Australian tourism away from the traditional backpacker model. For a start, Chinese visitors tend to head to urban destinations. In New South Wales, 90% of Chinese visitor nights are spent in Sydney. Research shows that visitors are keen to eat Chinese food, especially at breakfast time. Gambling is also an attraction, which is likely to increase pressure on state governments from hoteliers and the entertainment industry to license more casinos.
Asia-themed events are also increasing in importance. Chinese New Year celebrations in Sydney have become so colourful and exuberant that they have been dubbed 'Mardi Gras goes to China.' It is also the biggest Chinese New Year festival anywhere in the world outside of China.
For the tourism sector, there is a downside to China's growth. The resources boom is exacerbating skills shortages, as bus drivers take the wheel behind Haulpak trucks and hotel chefs head to mine canteens, where they can double their salaries. There are now thought to be 36,000 vacancies in the industry.
This is already having a policy-altering effect. Recently, the Australian Government approved a three-year trial that will allow tourism operators to employ seasonal workers from Pacific countries and East Timor. Increasingly, these guest workers will be tending to the needs of Chinese visitors.
China Airborne served as a terrific title for James Fallows' book. It also works as a heading for the latest chapter in the story of Australian tourism at the beginning of the Asian century.