Comment: Alarm bells should be ringing for tourism industry

Comment: Alarm bells should be ringing for tourism industry
By admin

They have been described as a “Government for Tourism”, which had “thoughtful insights” about the industry and possessed the good sense to place tourism under the auspices of foreign affairs and trade.

It was a bright new beginning, we were told when Tony Abbott defeated Kevin Rudd, and were assured we had entered an era where tourism would be taken seriously and recognised for its contribution to Australia’s economic well-being.

Hail the Coalition!

So can someone please explain to me why we no longer have a tourism minister?

For the first time in 40 years, the tourism industry does not have a dedicated minister at federal level to approach with its worries and concerns, its issues and ideas. Not since the portfolio was axed on Monday.

Tourism New Zealand has Prime Minister John Key to deal with – he doubles as the country’s tourism minister. Tourism Australia has, well, no one. Not anymore.

So much for being the Government for Tourism.

To recap Monday’s announcement, Andrew Robb, pictured, will oversee international tourism as part of his wider trade and investment role, with domestic tourism falling under the jurisdiction of minister for industry, Ian Macfarlane. But to stress, neither has tourism as a stand-alone responsibility.

As for Bob Baldwin, who was widely respected as shadow tourism minister, he has been discarded, relegated to parliamentary secretary for industry, much to everyone's surprise, not least to Baldwin himself I imagine.

Labor was castigated during its term of office for not giving tourism sufficient focus. It was part of Martin Ferguson’s portfolio but, as minister for resources and energy, it was felt his priorities lay elsewhere. There may have been some truth in that, although he was present at every major tourism event and conference I can recall. And at least tourism was represented as a stand-alone industry, and had a voice in the cabinet.

Not so now.

Coalition supporters will argue that it matters little about job and ministerial titles and what is publicly listed in their portfolios. It’s what goes on behind the scenes that matters.

But is Andrew Robb, with his wide-ranging role as trade and investment minister, really going to have the time, or the inclination, to give tourism the prominence the industry craves? He will be dealing with all manner of industries, all falling over themselves to raise their own issues and demands. Tourism will be just one voice in many clamouring to get his attention. Good luck with that.

The same goes for Ian Macfarlane who, in his industry ministry, will oversee domestic tourism.

The fact the Abbott administration thought fit to split international and domestic in the first place was a little odd, although it could be argued the two are, indeed, very distinct with their own set of dynamics.

To be fair, tourism’s presence in the department of foreign affairs and trade does appear to make sense, and of course there will be staff below ministerial level tasked with engaging with the industry. But that’s not quite the same as having the ear of a cabinet minister, as it did with Martin Ferguson.

How easy will it be for industry bodies to get an audience with Robb or Macfarlane and who will Tourism Australia “report” to, in the absence of a minister dedicated to tourism?

As Felicia Mariani, the managing director of the Australian Tourism Export Council told Travel Today, industry bodies must now, more than ever, unite with one voice to convince Robb of tourism’s economic value and ensure it is “front and centre” of his trade portfolio.

ATEC is clearly concerned at developments, unsurprisingly so, with Mariani admitting the lack of a tourism minister is a “significant omission”.

But there appears to be no such worry over at the Tourism and Transport Forum which issued an extraordinary statement where the elimination of the tourism portfolio was not even addressed.

Sure, there is nothing wrong with praising tourism’s positioning under DFAT but as a lobby group working for the interests of the industry, surely it felt the need to raise the issue?

That said, Bruce Baird, TTF’s chairman, is a former Liberal MP so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at its stance. But if I was a TTF member, I’d be asking a few questions.

In producing a tourism policy prior to the election, the Abbott Government made some encouraging noises. And, as mentioned, placing tourism under foreign affairs and trade was a universally popular move.

But axing the tourism minister portfolio has sent a worrying message to the industry. Alarm bells will be ringing. Loudly.

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