Discovering the world on our doorstep

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There’s not a spare parking spot to be had in the NSW central west town of Orange. Patrons spill from cafes onto pavements and queues trail in orderly ribbons from the gelato shop’s doorway. There’s no room at any inn, and restaurants are bursting at their (COVID-compliant) seams; forget about scoring a table if you haven’t booked ahead of time. Travel is back, and regional Australia is the big winner.

View for cluster of local pink granit boulder over looking valley leading towards township of Tarana in Central NSW. Near Bathurst. (John Clutterbuck/Getty Images)

Orange was already gaining popularity with its elegant wineries and funky dining scene, but the post-lockdown breakout has brought a tsunami of visitors to its clipped, quaint streets and the winelands, olive groves and fig orchards radiating beyond its centre. A local purveyor recalls moving here from Sydney a decade ago, before Orange became trendy.

‘Now the whole of Sydney seems to be here,’ he says with a hint of irritation, and altogether cognisant of the fact that I and several of my party are visiting from that very city.

One can fully understand his frustration. Domestic destinations have been largely overlooked by Australians with the means to travel further afield; before our globetrotting lifestyles were rudely circumscribed earlier this year, we would routinely jet off to foreign shores on our annual holidays. Despite subdued economic conditions, low wage growth and a devalued Australian dollar, around 11 million Australians were expected to travel overseas between 2019 and 2020, and over 12 million the following financial year.

COVID put paid to all that, and when the shutters inched gradually open, itchy-footed hordes champed at them like crowds at the Boxing Day sales; only instead of surging inside they were desperate to be released into the great outdoors. All that pent-up wanderlust and lockdown-inspired cabin fever must be assuaged somewhere, and regional Australia has been the providential beneficiary.

And so it should be. Australia is a world unto itself, an entire continent endowed with topographical, social and cultural riches that extend far beyond the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I’ve watched somewhat bemusedly as colleagues in the travel industry have discovered with delight and surprise cities like Broken Hill and Bathurst and Coonabarabran. And yet they’ve always been here, within striking distance, but have been most often bypassed in favour of more glamorous places like Tuscany and Vail and the French Riviera.

 

'We couldn’t have known, when Tourism Australia launched its ‘Holiday Here This Year’ campaign from the ashes of the New Year fires that it would soon become the only place we could holiday in at all. How curious that it took a pandemic to refocus our attention on ourselves as a nation and as a people.'

 

It’s to be expected, for our human DNA somehow compels us to strike out beyond our borders, to find what lies far yonder so we might better understand our own place in this world. The motherland will always be there, waiting for us; we will return as prodigals, wise to the world and ready to explore our own backyards. As a migrant, though, I’ve necessarily approached Australia from the perspective of a foreigner: this country has always been exotic to me. And so, too, for that exclusive caravan of intrepid Aussies who pack up their cars and Kombis and caravans and set off for a lap (or three) of this magnificent country.

Yet despite Australians’ penchant for international travel, research by Tourism Research Australia (TRA) reports that domestic tourists were already outspending their international counterparts by a ratio of 2:1 before borders closed earlier this year. In 2019, more than nine million international visitors to this country spent a total of $45 billion — a significant proportion of which wouldn’t have benefitted the Australian economy. Australians, by comparison, spent $107 billion on domestic overnight travel and daytrips, and $65 billion on international trips (of which around half encompassed holiday travel). With the International Air Transport Association predicting air passenger numbers won’t return to pre-COVID levels until 2023–24, the potential for a domestic-led tourism recovery is immense.

There are potential roadblocks to a full recovery, of course. Though popular regions are thrumming with holidaymakers and economic forecasts are good, the long-term impact of the pandemic on household incomes can’t yet be measured, and a negative outcome would be deleterious for domestic tourism. Furthermore, the spending habits of local travellers differ from those visiting from afar. Domestic tourists tend to take shorter trips and engage in fewer activities than their international counterparts; we are more self-sufficient when travelling locally than abroad.

We couldn’t have known, when Tourism Australia launched its ‘Holiday Here This Year’ campaign from the ashes of the New Year fires that it would soon become the only place we could holiday in at all. How curious that it took a pandemic to refocus our attention on ourselves as a nation and as a people. But as we move into still-uncharted waters, we should guard against the very blight we (along with our foreign counterparts) have wrought upon destinations deemed fashionable and therefore overrun by too many tourists. Let’s seek out the nameless hamlets and engage the anonymous small businesses along with those that are already famous or becoming better-known. And let’s not forget, when international travel finally resumes, that there’s a whole world worth exploring on our very own doorstep.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. 

Main image: View for cluster of local pink granit boulder over looking valley leading towards township of Tarana in Central NSW. Near Bathurst. (John Clutterbuck/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Australia, travel, tourism, Orange, COVID-19

 

 

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Existing comments

Visiting at home is good. You can’t be arrested under pretext by a foreign authoritarianism.
roy chen yee | 10 December 2020


Australia is really a very beautiful, and joyful country. The joy born of the same beauty, and mystery concealed within a hidden black opal. And is a reminder of Seneca's words to Lucilius: "Above all, my dear Lucilius, make this your business: learn how to feel joy".
AO | 14 December 2020


Another advantage of domestic tourism is that it is far less dependent on the exploitation of an underclass that mont external tourist destinations.
Ginger Meggs | 16 December 2020


Ginger Meggs: “Another advantage of domestic tourism is that it is far less dependent on the exploitation of an underclass ... external tourist destinations.” True. Visit a poor country and you’re caught in the Pontius Pilate trap: ecce the homo and wash your hands of him.
roy chen yee | 23 December 2020


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