Cultural tourism is an ace up the industry’s sleeve: AFTA chief

Cultural tourism is an ace up the industry’s sleeve: AFTA chief

There is an ace up our sleeve that will help us resolve one of the big issues currently facing our economy.

And it may surprise many of you, despite being hidden in plain sight. It’s something that many other countries have long exploited – which is that culture drives tourism and investment.

Cultural tourism may sound niche – it’s anything but. Cultural tourism is a huge opportunity and a growing trend. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, roughly eighty per cent of the 150,000,000-plus adults who travel more than 50 miles from their homes can be considered cultural tourists. Thirty per cent state that specific arts or a cultural or heritage event influenced their choice of destination on their last trip. It is estimated that cultural tourism accounts for forty per cent of all European tourism: four out of 10 tourists choose their destination based on its cultural offering.

The interest in culture among travellers – particularly active and frequent travellers – is on the rise. According to the experts, global cultural tourism is forecast to increase by 15 per cent in the coming years.

And Australia is no different. Prior to this year’s pandemic, Australians had been finding a renewed passion: discovery of our own extraordinary continent. And it’s not just beaches and a break we’ve been seeking – an increasing driver of domestic tourism has been our thirst for arts and cultural experiences.

As we emerge from lockdowns and border restrictions, domestic tourism – one of the things 2020 has taken from us – is something Australian governments, state and federal, are keen to reignite.

So, what will drive us to emerge from our enforced hibernations and visit other parts of this great country? The very things we are all craving: to get away from the everyday, to experience new things, see different landscapes, to explore the unknown and to connect with different people. All of these elements are heightened by arts and cultural experiences – be they Darwin Festival, a fashion exhibition in Bendigo, Opera in the Vineyards in the Hunter Valley, or a major music event like the Falls Festival. And recent data shows how integral the links are between the two worlds of arts and tourism.

Image source: Opera in the Vineyards

The Connecting the Country study on domestic arts tourism published by the Australia Council for the Arts in February – just before the pandemic disruptions – revealed how much our arts and culture drive domestic tourism. Arts-related day trips and overnight stays contributed $16 billion to the domestic tourism market in 2018.

And arts tourists are ‘high-value’ tourists who tend to stay longer and spend more.

Domestic tourism has become a big focus of the current government as part of our national recovery – for good reason. It’s a major driver of jobs, growth and the economy.

We need to make sure our arts and culture are thriving as tourism drawcards to drive this recovery.

Think of the halo effects. You go visit a regional gallery or take the kids to see the Harry Potter stage show in Melbourne (when you still could) and, of course, you stay in hotels, eat at restaurants and cafes and do a bit of shopping – all vital support for local businesses. All spending. All jobs.

We’ve known for a while that almost all of us regularly engage with arts and culture.  Almost all Australians – 98 per cent, in fact – regularly participate in the arts, whether they realise it or not. It’s listening to music and reading novels, going to gigs, visiting exhibitions, and attending festivals or shows.

It is the power of this engagement that draws us out to theatres, galleries, bookshops and venues – giving life to local communities, local cafes and restaurants, cities and regions.

In Creating Our Future: Results of the National Arts Participation Survey released last month, a nationally representative study of almost 9,000 Australians said, overwhelmingly, that arts and culture improved their lives.

Not for a few. For 84 per cent of Australians.

We now know how vital it is for wellbeing. More than half Australians say their participation in arts and culture has a big or very big positive impact on their happiness and mental health (even before we became so reliant on it in lockdown). Greater wellbeing builds confidence, capability and generates more outward-facing participation across the whole economy.

The research also revealed a strong upward trend in the appreciation Australians have of the role of arts and culture in bringing customers to local businesses. The promise of participation in great arts and culture is the pull that makes customers for businesses in other parts of the country – a boon for tourism services, accommodation, hospitality, local shops and other local activities.

Tourism is changing. All over the world, people are increasingly motivated to travel for self-discovery, rather than simply for relaxation. Cultural tourism is booming. Australia has incomparable cultural heritage that includes our world-leading First Nations cultures, as well as diverse regional centres and communities with unique cultural offerings and places of interest. Regional Australia is already home to many of our cultural tourism hotspots. Much more could be done to ensure Australia reassumes its rightful position on the global cultural trails.

This is isn’t a ‘soft’ cultural argument. It’s about rebuilding the vitality of our regions and urban centres by building the drivers and confidence of Australians to travel to them. It’s about our national recovery.

The Australia Council’s COVID-19 Audience Outlook Monitor has been tracking Australians’ current appetites to return to cultural events. It shows that many of us are keen to get back amongst it. As more venues open and events resume, we’re seeing greater levels of activity in the market among those who are comfortable to attend right now.

This is big news for tourism.

Festivals and events are, of course, major drawcards. Last year’s Adelaide Festival generated an estimated $76.8 million in associated spending for the state with 19,046 visitors coming from interstate or overseas for 141,258 bed nights. The Tamworth Country Music Festival usually brings in about $50 million into the town each January.

Image source: Toyota Country Music Festival Tamworth

Connecting the Country revealed that, pre-lockdown, both domestic and international arts tourism were already significant, and growing. From big events like capital city festivals to local artists’ studio visits, Australians are increasingly drawn to visit cities and regional areas across the country to discover their unique qualities and understand our country.

Cultural tourism benefits all of us, and will be vital to recovery of our cities and regions after the bushfires, the COVID lockdowns, and as we come back from our current recession.

There is always more to discover in this great continent, and our arts and culture give us a reason to get up and go, to stay a while longer, and to do that vital spending that will bring the lifeblood back to communities across the country.

Darren Rudd is the CEO of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents and a board member of the Australia Council for the Arts.


Featured image source: Big Red Bash

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