It's been 30 years since the fondly remembered "Come and say G'day" campaign, in which a smiling Paul Hogan invited Americans to Australia and offered to "slip an extra shrimp on the barbie for you." Never mind that Aussies don't usually say "shrimp" (the word is "prawn"). Three months later, Australia went from No. 78 to No. 7 on a list of America's most desired holiday spots. Hogan further promoted his homeland with "Crocodile" Dundee (1986) and its sequels, which made him a Hollywood star and cemented Australia's position as a cool destination. Eventually, it was regularly No. 1 or No. 2 on America's "dream vacation" lists.
Inbound tourism to Australia enjoyed double-digit growth in many years during the 1980s, and the industry grew by an all-time high of 26 percent in 1988. However, the market has fallen off from those heady days. The number of U.S. visitors flying into Sydney fell to 277,000 in 2011, from 318,000 in 2001. A few possible reasons come to mind:
The jewel of Australia's crown is the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef — a prime site for snorkeling, scuba-diving, and beach activities. While it remains popular, visitor numbers have fallen. The reasons are various, but lately the reef has made more news for its struggling ecosystem than for its beauty. Last year, a government-sponsored report downgraded its health from "moderate" to "poor" due to pollution, climate change, cyclones, and runoff from agricultural land near the coast.
And earlier this month, the Australian government granted the mining industry a permit to dump five million tons of dredge spoils inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park — which has drawn the ire of environmental activists.
An '80s vibe
Many of Australia's favorite holiday spots have barely changed since the 1980s. Daydream Island, a popular family resort on the Reef, seems frozen in 1988, with the same weathered mermaid statues decorating the beaches, looking so retro that you almost expect to hear INXS playing in the background. Even natural wonders need the occasional reboot, and popular resorts are starting to undergo multi-million-dollar upgrades. The Reef might soon be as cool as it was in the 80s — but not without effort.
Americans still remember "Come and say G'day," but the tourism industry hasn't been able to recapture the magic of that campaign. More recent campaigns have been disastrous, including a 2006 flop in which a bikini-clad model pointedly asked, "So where the bloody hell are you?" She was banned in Britain for swearing, and Asian markets were left perplexed. An ambitious 2008 effort, directed by Baz Luhrmann, was released around the same time as his film Australia. Partly funded by Tourism Australia, this film — despite its Hollywood stars and sweeping Outback vistas — wasn't exactly a "Crocodile" Dundee-level hit.
"I'd love to visit Australia, but I'm afraid of the snakes and the spiders." I have heard that from many Americans and Europeans. For these would-be tourists, arachnophobia has trumped the attraction of wide beaches and sailboat-style opera houses. The Australian government hasn't helped matters, launching an ad campaign in the Middle East in 2000 to dissuade refugees from entering Australia. Among other things, the campaign emphasized the dangers of native fauna. Australia is home to many venomous critters, but they have killed very few people. Nonetheless, the campaign went viral, and was seen worldwide.
The crowdsourcing website Expatistan.com recently named six Australian cities among the 26 most expensive cities in which to live. Australia has long been pricey, but this was worsened by the global financial crisis, which kept international tourists away. Australia's economy, fueled by mining, weathered the crisis far better than most countries, which meant exchange rates were unfavorable to tourists. Indeed, with the Australian dollar outclassing the greenback, Aussies themselves traveled overseas in record numbers.
The Queensland floods of 2011 caused further damage to the Reef — and to the tourist industry. As news worldwide carried photos of flood-laden towns and (fallacious) reports of crocodiles swimming down the streets of Brisbane, Queensland became a less attractive holiday option. Overnight, tourists canceled their bookings. Queensland Tourism quickly leapt into action — flying 150 travel writers from around the world to prove that it was open for business — but the damage had already been done. Major bush fires — which are becoming more regular, thanks to climate change — also make the news, scaring adventure travelers away from the popular hiking trails of New South Wales and Victoria.