Scenarios for Australian tourism 2020

Doug Cocks, CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology

Scenario writing has been an important tool of business and government now for over thirty years. Companies like Shell and Anglo-American have put considerable resources into trying to visualise the environment within which they will be operating ten, twenty or even fifty years off. Scenarios are not predictions. They are word pictures of how the future of a country, industry, business or individual could turn out...maybe. Armed with alternative images of the future, it becomes more possible to make longer-term plans which are robust in the face of a wide range of outcomes.

A scenariographer gazing into the future of international tourism in Australia, come 2020, would rapidly come to the conclusion that it all depends on the unfolding of supply and demand in the industry over coming decades. Not supply and demand in a strict market sense but one of trying to uncover all the factors which might influence the number of international tourists willing and able to come to Australia and all the factors determining the industry’s ability to provide these visitors with value for money. Some of these will be very direct like room costs and others will be indirect like resident attitudes to tourists.

The demand side

It is easy to foresee that the growing wealth of western Pacific nations and associated changes in social and cultural patterns are providing the means and incentive for leisure travel. To the increasingly affluent middle-class travellers of Asia, Australia offers special natural attractions, wide open spaces and an alluring lifestyle, all within similar time zones. The mix of attractions and proximity may well mean a growing number of visitors from Japan and North and South Asia. It is not at all implausible to foresee 20 million international tourists a year by 2020.

However, this potential growth in international tourist traffic could be halted by a slowing in the growth of the four ‘Asian tiger’ and six ‘Asian cub’ economies, a scenario first raised seriously by the distinguished Paul Krugman of Stanford University. He attributes present high growth to the mobilisation of previously under-utilised resources.

Other contingencies which mitigate against this ‘best case’ supply picture include outbreaks in international terrorism, escalating energy prices, a decline in confidence in airline safety or even a series of business failures in the increasingly risky world aviation industry on which Australia relies to deliver international tourists. Combine several of these contingencies with a breakthrough in ‘virtual reality’ technology and the international tourist industry would be faced with a major challenge.


Management in the aviation industry is critical to Australia's tourist industry, particularly the balance between co-operation and competition in the industry. By the turn of the century world aviation could be dominated by large carriers benefiting from economies of scale. There could be an acceleration of the trends that are changing both aviation and tourism. These include concentration of ownership and influence across borders. This region’s carriers could either agglomerate to form a regional mega-carrier or make their separate links with mega-cariers outside the region.


The supply side

Tourism activities divide easily into culture-based, with historical and cultural foci, and landscape-based, with natural features and ecosystems as the foci of visits.

One can envisage both sectors of the industry growing, although scenariettes (mini-scenarios) with either sector growing significantly relative to the other can be envisaged.

Culture-based tourism is likely to remain focused on Sydney with other capitals becoming increasingly important but at a slower rate. The demand for resort-based as distinct from circuit-based packaged holidays by foreign tourists, particularly Japanese, is increasing rapidly. Europeans tend to favour `experiential' holidays, staying longer in less expensive accommodation and getting among the local people.

Outside the cities, foreign tourists currently flock to a few spots such as the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kakadu National Park. In coming decades landscape-based international tourism can be envisaged as expanding around an augmented set of ‘icons’, largely in northern Australia in the three regions of Cape York (Qld), Kimberley (WA) and the Top End of the Northern Territory.

Tourism in the Northern Territory is predominantly park-based. The Northern Territory Tourist Commission is actively adding new tourist destinations to the major attractions of the national parks at Kakadu, Uluru and Katherine Gorge. The strategy seems to be to create a widely dispersed set of `attractions'. Recent additions to the tourist circuit include Gove, Cobourg Peninsula and national parks at King's Canyon, Finke Gorge and Keep River. There are even plans afoot for the tiny settlement of Borroloola on the Gulf. It can be foreseen that this strategy will continue to be emphasised in order to relieve pressure on Kakadu and Uluru.

The Kimberleys have the potential to become a major tourist area based on coastal resorts and inland features such as the brittle sandstone towers of the Bungle Bungle Range. Today, the industry is in its infancy. Developments have been initiated or planned for Walcott Inlet, Bungle Bungle Range and the Berkeley wilderness north-west of Wyndham. All have been criticised by conservation interests as being insensitively sited. Decisions on siting of the future road network are central to defining opportunities and constraints on the evolution of the tourism-wilderness-conservation pattern.

Tourism, the economy, the environment and the society

Inbound tourism has recently become our largest export earning industry. However, many inputs to tourism are imported (eg aircraft) and many tourist operations are foreign-owned and repatriate their profits. The need to invest to keep up with tourist numbers has meant more foreign investment. Australian entrepreneurs and bankers are not particularly attracted to tourist projects because of the slow early returns. A large fraction of present investment in tourist infrastructure, mainly hotels and resorts in New South Wales and Queensland, is in fact Japanese. Thus the foreign exchange benefits of this industry are probably considerably less than for, say, wool or wheat. Significant external costs such as increased pressure on air terminals further reduce the net social benefits of the industry. For many Australians, the big question is how many visitors are we prepared to tolerate in return for extra jobs and foreign earnings? The industry will need to address this concern head on.

Nature-based tourism imposes depreciation costs on the country's natural capital just as surely as does primary production. It is difficult to develop a uniquely Australian tourist experience without getting close to the land, and this is what is damaging when it involves large numbers of people.

Resorts, for example, can displace natural ecosystems such as the mudflats off Cairns; visitors wear out the vegetation around Ayers Rock and the depositional formations in caves in Tasmania; repeatedly disturbing magpie geese rookeries to get `mass flight' photos leads to rookery abandonment; anchor chains reduce coral reefs to rubble; runoff from Queensland coastal resorts threatens fringing reefs; and so on. Before these costs can be charged to anybody, they have to be identified and measured, and accepted methods for doing this do not exist. In the meantime, there is growing tension between the tourist industry and environmental groups. More positively, we have to develop strategic plans which minimise or avoid such problems.

Scenarios of how these tensions will be resolved over coming decades range from strong community control of the industry through enlightened self-regulation to a laissez faire solution. The latter stands to accelerate the movement of resorts through the common life cycle of discovery, development and saturation, followed by either decline, stagnation or rejuvenation.

A tourism strategy?

The strategic challenge which the industry and the community faces is to build up the attractiveness of Australia as a tourist destination while keeping the social and environmental costs of the industry to an acceptably low level and managing the resource base well enough to mainatain its attractiveness indefinitely. For example:

Will there be ‘tourist zones’ around recognised features, eg Flinders Ranges?

Will each zone have a set ‘bed capacity’ to forestall the `stagnation' phase of resort development wherein tourist facilities are showing signs of overload (pollution and environmental decay) and tourist numbers have peaked and begun to decline? The loss of social amenity due to overcrowding per se is a very real factor in initiating resort stagnation.

How will the industry’s strategy for managing international tourism interface with the domestic tourism and recration sectors?

Will the industry’s strategy adequately address such issues as the role and financing of the Australian Tourist Commission, availability of skilled staff, the need for timely visitor statistics, the adequacy of transport infrastructure and the `mix' of accommodation types. Most of these issues are symptoms of the industry's rapid growth.

Will it address community concerns about job quality in the tourist industry, pollution (including noise, litter and `architectural pollution')? Can anything be done for ordinary people who find their lives disrupted by living in a tourist destination?

These are very challenging questions for the industry and, from CSIRO experience in scenario-writing for several sectors, typical of the concerns which scenario-writing exercises bring into focus. Recognising and accepting such issues as plausible contingencies in the industry’s future is the first step towards planning how to address them. Fortunately, international tourism has so many of the characteristics of a ‘sunrise industry’ for Australia that one can be confident that satisfactory responses to most of the sector’s opportunities and challenges are out there waiting to be found.

Box 1: Some future nature-based tourist foci;

* south-west Tasmania

* the Colo area north-west of Sydney

* large parts of Cape York

* large parts of the Kimberleys

* most of the five big deserts

* the Big Desert and the Sunset Country in the Victorian Mallee

* world clas walking trails from Queensland via the Great Dividing Range to the Grampians in Victoria and another right around Australia's coastline.