Tourism boom but no tourism jobs growth

The number of tourists coming to Tasmania per year has increased by a whopping 31% over the last four years, from 961,600 in the year to June 2013 to 1.26 million in the year to June 2016 (Tourism Tasmania figures), and expenditure has grown by even more. But the number of people employed in tourism has hardly changed in those four years.

Tourism Research Australia (TRA, a branch of the Tourism Division of Austrade) reports that the number of people employed directly in tourism (tourism is defined as relating to all visitors) in Tasmania has fluctuated but is now virtually the same as it was four years ago: 

Source: State Tourism Satelite Accounts

Source: State Tourism Satelite Accounts

In 2015-16 Tasmania had almost exactly the same number of people directly employed in tourism as four years ago when the boom started, and almost the same as the ten year average

Despite all the rosy media stories about new tourism businesses opening, the facts are that even if new tourism jobs have been created, other tourism jobs have been lost in equal numbers.

The current government and industry approach is not leading to an increase in jobs but no one wants to admit it. The TRA figures are reported in Premier Will Hodgman’s ‘Tourism 21’ reports but he does not report on the change from year to year or admit the lack of growth in jobs over the last four years. If the government admits the problem it will need to revise down its target of 20,000 people directly employed in tourism by 2020. 

The government’s tourism policy has been to ride on the back of the low Australian dollar, open sensitive areas to developments, build more infrastructure at crowded destinations (to allow even more people) and let market forces provide mass market visitor experiences. This laissez-faire approach has not increased jobs, is threatening the environment that underpins the industry and may alienate local communities.

For political reasons the government has been focused on progressing tourism developments in wilderness areas and National Parks. Few have eventuated but even if they do, the number of new jobs promised is not high. The expression of interest documents show that twenty accommodation developments proposed for the World Heritage Area are expected to employ a total of only 100 people when operating.

Tourism relies on publicly owned attractions and is well funded by tax-payers, so it is fair for the community to demand that the government and tourism industry answer ‘why has there been a tourism boom with no jobs growth?’. 

In the lead-up to the state election, it is time for all political parties to develop new strategies to grow jobs.  The first question to ask is: ‘what type of tourism industry do we want?’ I think that jobs growth, high quality tourism experiences, gradual growth in visitors and environmental protection all work synergistically. More on this later.

Why is there is no growth in tourism jobs? I have my theories, but it is vital the industry researches the causes of the problem and asks its members for solutions.

Jobs in tourism do not increase in direct proportion to the growth in visitor numbers or expenditure. For example, it takes almost as many people to run a tour or hotel if they are fully booked or half booked. 

Accommodation businesses make up half of all tourism jobs and once you are full you can’t easily expand. Perhaps bigger less labour-intensive accommodation providers are squeezing out other smaller businesses leaving less jobs in total. Airbnb only makes up some of this loss. 

About half of the visitors to Tasmania are non-tourists, visiting for work or loved ones, who will mostly stay with family and friends and are less likely to undertake tourist activities.

The typical tourism business employs 1-5 

people and as with any small businesses, putting on more staff can be difficult. Perhaps there is a real red tape issue? We have heard that many small businesses that provide tours and other tourist activities have responded to the increase in business by working a lot more hours per week and for longer each year and do not put on more staff.

The state government admits there are up to 400 vacancies in tourism businesses that cannot be filled by appropriately skilled people. We can hopefully reduce this number but some skills shortage is probably inevitable and it is only a small part of the problem. 

How can we convert high visitor numbers into jobs?

Government and industry should admit that current approaches are not working and commit to:

  • measuring visitor experience and setting targets for improvement;
  • implementing strategies to encourage employment in the high quality and labour intensive tourism sector;
  • maintaining natural and built heritage that underpins tourism. 

There has been much discussion about protecting the environment from tourism so I will focus on the first two points above.

The quality of the visitor experience does not get measured in any meaningful sense but should (see article of page 23). The Premier’s ’Tourism 21’ report only addresses customer ‘service satisfaction’ and ‘value for money’ (which also need improving) but does not report on visitors’ experience of tourist attractions and activities.

To boost jobs should we actively restrict low quality mass market tourism (e.g. large tour buses to Cradle Mountain) and provide incentives for quality providers to expand, to give visitors much more than just a selfie at Dove Lake?

Should we greatly increase the cost of National Park entry fees for tourists at the busiest times to reduce crowding, while providing exemptions for pensioners? Those who pay more may stay longer and do more.

Is the skills shortage related to poor accommodation in regional areas?

Should accreditation of ‘eco-tourism’ businesses be done independently of tourism industry advocacy groups? This would set much higher standards and make it a premium product.