You Can’t Optimise For Tourism

There’s been a bit of discussion recently following the Dark Mofo festival in Hobart. The Lord Mayor of Hobart, Ron Christie, is warning of the dangers of Dark Mofo and the welcoming of tourists into Tasmania.

I personally think Dark Mofo is a great festival that gets sleepy Hobartians out of their beds on cold winter evenings. It (and other arts events) should be encouraged.

But it did make me think more generally about tourism in Tasmania and what is healthy and what isn’t for the state. My hypothesis is this: you can’t optimise a place for tourism, because to do so ruins the reason the tourists come.

I’d like to cite an example. Last year my partner and I went to Vietnam, and we visited a town called Sapa. Sapa was a little mountain resort village surrounded by beautiful mountains, with beautiful hiking trails all around. And then they started building more resorts and other infrastructure for the tourists. And now the only people there work in the tourism industry, and it’s not real any more. I remember looking at the town square and remarking, “it’s like Vietnamese Disneyland.” It wasn’t fun to look at ‘villagers’ who lived in apartments and went out into the village to sell trinkets to passing tourists. It was a complete waste of time going because I didn’t experience a Vietnamese village, which was the reason I went in the first place.

Hobart is a bit more than a mountain village, but it’s also surrounded by beautiful mountains with beautiful hiking trails. It has an identity it has built up over the last few decades as a “clean and green” place, where nature is just left to be. The influx of tourists has caused a lot of angst between people who want to optimise for tourism (such as building resorts on the East Coast of Tasmania, or building a cable car up Kunanyi [Mount Wellington]) and those who want to leave the natural places alone.

The problem with leaving these natural places alone is that the tourists are going to come anyway. You’re damned if you do put in the infrastructure and let the infrastructure ruin nature, and you’re damned if you don’t put in any infrastructure and the nature just gets trampled. In this way, Tasmania’s natural beauty is bound to suffer in the future (unless we put in place limits on the number of visitors). We just get to choose the method in which it happens.

Back in the city (if Hobart can yet be called that), it’s a different story. Tasmania’s economy has suffered in the last couple of decades as our older economies (farming, mining and forestry) have shrivelled up. Only high-end agriculture (have you tasted Tasmanian cheese? YUM) remains as a viable source of income for the state. Then MONA happened, and everything changed.

Almost overnight, MONA changed Hobart. Tourism went from being a small part of our economy to the saviour (willing to bet David Walsh would love being called that) that was going to fix Tasmania’s economic woes. And for almost the last decade, it has done just that. It’s brought in visitors to both the summer and winter festivals, to the museum, and to Tasmania generally. It’s made Tasmanians feel better about being Tasmanian, and it’s made the mainland states stop making fun of Tasmania and start taking notice.

But MONA alone cannot save Tasmania, because MONA is tourism, and if tourism is all you have left, the tourists will leave too. And there in lies the problem for Tasmania: we need to find a new economy, something our state can do well at, and something that is in demand in the world today.

This isn’t a problem for the state government to fix. Besides the fact that the government couldn’t govern it’s way out of paper bag (and the opposition isn’t much better), it’s not something the government has in it’s power to fix. Yes, the government could hand out subsidies to businesses or provide grants or some other thing. But it’s the people of this great state (and I think it is great, despite it’s problems) that have to step up and do this.

But what is something that Tasmania could do well at? Well, we’re too far away from literally everywhere else to ship anything, so volume manufacturing is out. No point making trinkets here. We could (and indeed do) manufacture high-end goods, such as furniture and clothing for rich pricks the discerning customer. But half the time these high-end goods only get sold to passing tourists. I believe the reason for this is that a sole operator in a shed just can’t sustain marketing their product to the world. The only place where we have managed to do this is whiskey. If a viable large-scale high-end manufacturing business could be built in Tasmania today, it would propel Tasmania into the future.

Tasmania is well placed to do technology, because Hobart’s lifestyle currently offers a great deal to well educated tech people. Commutes are short (relative to Melbourne or Sydney), and our network infrastructure is the best in Australia. The cost of living is cheap, so starting a startup requires less investment here than elsewhere. And we’ve had a few successes. Procreate, Biteable and Popup WiFi are going great guns. But there’s a limit to the success we can have unless we can deal with two huge factors conspiring against us.

The first of these is education. Our public school system sucks, and our university is a joke (why UTAS sucks as hard as it does is an entire article in itself). We have some of the lowest literacy and numeracy rates in the country. What does the technology industry need? Knowledge workers who know how to read, write, and add things up. Education is the future of Tasmania.

Secondly, whilst the cost of living is currently low, and the lifestyle is currently good, that’s changing rapidly. Housing prices are sky-rocketing and availability is plummeting, making Hobart a much harder place to move to unless you’re very rich. Our commutes are getting longer as we build houses (slowly) further and further from the CBD, meaning we’re spending longer stuck in traffic every day.

We’re scared to build high-rise buildings in and near the CBD because it might ruin what makes Hobart special, and might scare the tourists away. I’d argue that not building the high-rise buildings is even worse, because if Hobart becomes a sucky place to live for the locals (and sitting in traffic makes you miserable) then the locals will go away, and the tourists won’t be far behind them.

There are other ways to make Hobart better for the locals. Public transport infrastructure is a big one, as is Health infrastructure (more hospitals, basically). At this point, you could throw money at basically any non-tourism infrastructure project in the state and it would be a complete success (they’ll invest it in roads, you heard it here first).

If you want to make Tasmania great again (urghh, I feel sick even saying it), then tourism isn’t the answer. It can’t be. We need to invest in our local population, and we need to invest in the infrastructure that makes our local population smarter, healthier, and happier. Economic prosperity will follow.

End rant.

Our Trip To America

Recently I had cause to visit the United States for a friend’s wedding, which was being held in San Francisco. Since the USA is so far from Australia, my partner and I figured we may as well do a bit extra in case we’re not back for a while.

In the end, we settled on starting in San Francisco, visiting Yosemite National Park, catching the California Zephyr (a train) to Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited (another train) to New York, and then fly home from there. Anybody familiar with my love of trains will know that this trip made me very happy!

While I won’t speak much about the wedding publicly, I will just say this: it’s one of the most amazing weddings I’ve been to. I was also asked to give a bit of speech at the reception, and I may have got a bit soppy. Oops.

Exploring San Francisco was cool, but the city has some incredible social inequality issues that it really needs to work through. We saw so many homeless people, as a proportion of their population it must be an incredible percentage. We did see a few of the sights, notably the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as doing a trip to Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite was quite possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, outside Tasmania. It was pouring down with rain half the day, and there were a few thunderstorms as well, but that just made it even more incredible. Despite all the people, there were plenty of animals, so we got a few bird pictures and I saw a SQUIRREL!

The next part of our trip was the trains from San Francisco to New York, right across the full breadth of the USA.

We saw so much of America, from mountains to canyons to plains to farms to suburbs, and met a heap of people along the way. I would totally recommend the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago to literally anybody and everybody. Worth every cent.

We spent six hours in Chicago waiting to change trains, and in that time we managed to have some amazing deep pan pizza. It’s entirely different to normal pizza, and it’s fantastic. Can’t wait to cook it myself at home. Chicago was a really cool city, we both wish we’d spent more time there, maybe a day or two. When doing research for the trip we couldn’t think of anything touristy to do there, but while there we were just struck by how nice the city is and how nice living there would be. Even the suburbs the train went through looked pretty nice.

The train was reasonably comfortable, but the cabin was very small, all of our luggage caused issues trying to keep track of everything and still have room to sit down. The meals were excellent, especially considering it was a) on a train and b) in the USA. The two-deck cars used west of Chicago were nicer than the single-level cars used further east.

I have literally a thousand photos from these few days, but here is a quick selection:

Finally, we spent a couple of days in New York City. We both loved our time there, it really is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. It’s intense, with so many people packed into such a small space, but at the same time there was a good amount of culture packed in as well.

We stayed in a lovely AirBNB in Brooklyn, in an area called Prospect Park. Whilst the place we stayed was nice, what really struck us was the neighbourhood around it. Easily walkable, with excellent public transport, a variety of different socio-economic groups living there, all things that most Hobart suburbs… lack.

Manhattan, of course, was amazing. We went to Central Park (big and green, and I saw ANOTHER SQUIRREL), Times Square (busy and horribly touristy), the 9/11 Memorial (incredibly moving), the Statue of Liberty, and so much more I can’t even think of it all. We packed a lot into the couple of days we were there.

We also ate a lot of excellent food – pizza, bagels, cheeseburgers, cheesecake, as well as a curry (of course).

Overall, we both loved our trip to the USA. I would totally visit again, however I’m not looking forward to the flights – the fifteen hours from LAX to MEL is a killer, even on a Boeing 787 (which, by the way, is a very lovely aircraft).

If you’d like to see the full album of photos, send me an email and I’ll share them with you!

Packing List for Two Weeks in Vietnam

I’m about to head off an overseas trip for two weeks in Vietnam (travelling via train from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi), and like a true millenial traveller I thought it might be interesting to show everybody what I’ve packed for the occasion.

The plan is to live out of my backpack for two weeks, which, based on previous conference travelling, is a very achievable goal. My partner is also taking a backpack (albeit one slightly larger than mine).

You’ll note that this trip is unusual in that my partner is ‘encouraging’ me not to take a laptop (presumably because it’s so unusual that I travel without a laptop). That’s not much of an issue these days as smart phones can do almost anything a laptop can do these days, just with a much smaller keyboard. This lightens the backpack considerably.

The other change from my usual conference packing list is that, due to Vietnam being a tropical country and our trip being during the wet season, I’m taking a lot of medical gear I wouldn’t bother with otherwise (mosquito repellant, antibiotics, gastro tablets, bandages, and so on).

Without any further ado, here we are:

Clothing

  • 5x T-Shirts (light colours)
  • 5x Underwear
  • 5x Socks
  • 1x Shorts
  • 1x Jeans (mostly for airports and trains)
  • 1x Raincoat
  • 1x Swimwear
  • 1x Pyjama Shorts

You’ll note that five changes of clothes is nowhere near enough for a two week holiday, so we’re planning on doing laundry two or three times while we’re away. From my experience in the Philippines in 2013, laundry facilities are everywhere in South East Asia, and it’s even ridiculously cheap to pay somebody else to do it, so it makes a lot more sense than packing a suitcase to last you the entire trip (and then dragging that around with you for two weeks).

Medical / Toiletries

  • Travel Medical Kit (bandages, etc)
  • Travel Towel
  • Hand Sanitiser
  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Mosquito Repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Tablets

Other Items

  • Wallet
  • Phone
  • Passport
  • Keyring
  • Umbrella
  • Teabags (very important!)
  • USB Power Brick
  • USB Cable
  • Earphones
  • Luggage Tag
  • Luggage Locks
  • Sunglasses
  • Pens
  • Notepad
  • Staples (for changing SIM cards)
  • Foreign Currency
  • Travel Documents

And when it’s packed, it all looks like this:

I’m planning on doing a review of this bag (the Thule Crossover 32L) as it’s an awesome bag, both for commuting and (hopefully) for travel. I’ll probably write that once I’m back and have fully trialled it in every scenario.

For now though, it’s time to begin the travels!

Retrieving A List Of Customer Emails From WooCommerce

Recently I had cause to retrieve a list of customer emails (which due to guest checkout functionality is not the same as a list of user emails) from a WooCommerce installation. A quick search suggested that the easiest way was to install a plugin to do the job. I hate installing plugins on WordPress unless absolutely necessary (as half of them, including this one, are very badly maintained and thus either a security risk, a performance risk, or both).

Instead, the SQL query to retrieve this information, as well as a count of how many orders each customer has made, took only a few minutes to prepare and run:

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice

It’s been a very long time since I’ve read a fiction book. It’s not that I don’t read; I spend the majority of my evenings poring over non-fiction of some kind or another (business, history and engineering being my favourite subjects). I just never really saw the point of fiction.

That was, until I read Why Every Man Should Read Jane Austen, by one of my favourite bloggers, Brett McKay of The Art of Manliness. The Art of Manliness is one of my favourite blogs on the Internet (and you should definitely subscribe if you enjoy long-form blogging about philosophy and practical skills, regardless of gender). As such, I was intrigued.

Particularly fascinating to me was the discussion of ‘theory of mind’, the ability for us to understand each other and attribute emotions to other people. Honestly, it’s something I’ve never been particularly good at. Other people’s emotions are guesswork to most people most of the time, and to me (and combined with a healthy dose of impostor syndrome in my work) it is mostly cause for panic.

Initially I read the article and then almost dismissed it; I put it at the bottom of a very long to-do list (which will never be complete, my grandchildren will be splitting it up between them when I die). But it kept coming back to me, gnawing at me almost. I don’t read much fiction. I could be better at understanding others. My writing skills have deteriorated.

A week ago I couldn’t bear it any more and downloaded the book on Google Play (substitute Kindle, Project Gutenberg or a physical book store as you like). I thought it might be nice to read a couple of chapters each night to wind down before sleep. Oh how wrong I was. I was hooked.

Three days later, I’d read the entire book (including staying up to 3am two nights in a row), as well as watched the entire BBC mini-series of 6 hours (which I did in one sitting).

This book is incredible.

There’s intrigue, there’s romance, there’s comedy, there’s so much metaphorical bitch-slapping you wouldn’t believe.

Due to the age of the book (it’s written and set in Regency England) the language can be hard to read at times, especially the dialogue. People spoke to each other much differently then, and it took reading passages three or four times before I could sometimes understand them. There were also some passages I didn’t understand the significance of, because I couldn’t read the sarcasm or other inflections properly – it took watching the mini-series to sort that out.

But the difference in language is also one of the strongest points. It gives you an insight into how formal the language was then, and how formally they treated others as a general rule. To not be polite to somebody then was the worst thing that could possibly happen. And the ramifications would be severe: Mrs. Bennett’s loud-mouthedness almost cost her the potential marriages of two of her daughters.

There are other insights too. To do something dishonourable (such as live with a somebody out of wedlock, a big deal for fair reasons back then – there was no contraception) had an impact not only on other’s opinions of you, but also on your family and your friends, and for a very long time. This is something still true today, but it’s far less obvious and the reminder of it’s presence is welcome (even if the presence itself is not).

I also now understand a lot more pop culture references. So many TV shows make references to Pride and Prejudice. I always used to giggle when I saw a reference to some classic that I had read, and now I see them far more often. Even Top Gear made them. Almost for this reason alone I’ve committed to reading more fiction in the future. It makes everything more fun.