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.

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