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Tough times for north Queensland tourist towns

By: Patrick Caruana
27 June, 2012

When Doug Calvert closed the doors of his four Port Douglas shops for the final time, he did so with a heavy heart.

He'd done all he could to create a profitable business in the far-north Queensland tourist town, but he'd been sent into liquidation six years after moving from Victoria with his wife Wendy.

Calvert had put in more than his share of resources to help Port Douglas - joining the Chamber of Commerce and even bringing students from the Melbourne Business School to town to compile a plan for the region's future.

But the combined impacts of the global financial crisis and Cyclone Yasi proved too much, and he was forced to sell up and return to Melbourne to look for work.

He left behind four clothing shops, a beachfront house, and an open letter to the town.

"I have no confidence that Port is capable of turning around in the next ten years," Calvert wrote.

"Certainly the banks, my business advisers and the liquidator believe there is a lot more pain to come."

His forecast for the future is just as gloomy.

"When we come back to Port in ten years time I want people to say I was wrong," he said.

"If not, I'll be booking a $50-a-night room in one-star accommodation, eating take-away, shopping in a nothing over $5 shop."

Ken Dobbs, the president of the town's Chamber of Commerce, says the recovery has been hampered by the surging Australian dollar, and the introduction of budget international flights to Asia.

"We will not be able to compete on price with these Asian destinations in the foreseeable future," he said.

"We have to adjust to this, and work out new ways of getting people to holiday in Australia. But if I knew the answers, I'd be very rich."

A quick glance at the score sheet confirms his fears.

The total number of domestic visitor nights spent in Queensland plummeted by 14 per cent between 2005 and 2009, and has barely recovered since.

The amount local visitors are spending has also taken a major hit, falling 12 per cent in the two years after the global financial crisis.

In addition to the economic woes, Mother Nature literally gave the state's tourism industry a belting when Cyclone Yasi tore across the Queensland coast in February 2011.

Major resorts on Dunk and Bedarra islands were badly damaged, closed and sold. Both are yet to reopen.

Mission Beach's luxury Elandra did manage to open again, but has since closed its accommodation and now serves only as a function centre.

The town's backpacker hostel, Scotty's, suffered a lasting slump because of the cyclone and delays in rebuilding infrastructure.

Owner Boyd Scott says he has had to move to Cairns to supplement his income, but remains optimistic the state can bounce back.

"The situation at the moment is still a bit fragile, and we are down on volume," he said.

"We need to focus on giving people a great time, rather than trying to dazzle them with the latest and greatest in technology. People who stay for longer tend to remember the Australian friendliness."

Scott was one of many tourism operators to speak at the DestinationQ conference in Cairns.

The forum is an initiative of the new Liberal National Party government, and is aimed at getting tourists back to the Sunshine State.

Queensland tourism minister Jann Stuckey says she hopes the forum will spark new investment in the sector.

"If you look back 20 years there was quite a flurry of new product coming on the market but we haven't seen very much since because people who were keen to invest in Queensland had to jump through so many hoops they lost interest."

She is confident Destination Q will lay the groundwork not only for future government decisions, but also for a response plan.

"I do believe there is a buoyancy and a confidence bubbling out there and it is now up to the government to continue to deliver but it's also up to the industry to come with us and then lead the way."

Scott appreciates the opportunity to speak directly to government.

"A lot of the time in the past, we've been told there would be consultation on major decisions, which just meant decisions were made and then explained to us," he said.

"It's good to see they're listening to us."

Queensland Tourism Industry Council boss Daniel Gschwind says a lot of old habits have to change.

"We have to cooperate on a new basis and put new vigour into the way we promote, develop and operate tourism in this state," he said.

"We have already seen the announcement of a cabinet committee for tourism which will bring together ministers who have key responsibilities for portfolio decisions for our industry."

That, he says, will give departments such as transport, education and environment a clear direction and plan of action for legislation that affects tourism.

Amidst all the gloom, Dobbs says he can see a white knight on the horizon.

"There's [sic] a billion people in China who are moving into the middle class. They are becoming affluent people who can afford to travel," he said.

"And since we're not as far away as the US or the European market, there are some great opportunities there."

However, Scott says the Chinese market presents its own challenges.

"Beaches aren't always the places they like to go to, they might not be as keen to learn surf as the Europeans or the North Americans," he said.

"They take a very prestige attitude to travel. But because it's been a tough five years, nothing's looking as shiny.

"But once we get the confidence back, the investment will come."

Source: AAP