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!