Tourism boom but no tourism jobs growth

A key issue for the next four years is how Tasmania can convert the growth in visitor numbers into growth in tourism jobs. The government should consider bold steps including assisting labor intensive tourism businesses and restricting the so called mass market tourism businesses.

The number of tourists coming to Tasmania per year has increased 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 - Tourism Division of Austrade) reports that the number of people employed directly in tourism (defined as relating to all visitors) in Tasmania has fluctuated with no sustained growth since the boom began: 2012-13: 16,800 people; 2013-14: 17,600 people; 2014-15: 17,800 people; 2015-16: 17,200 people (State Tourism Satellite Accounts). 2016-17 figures are not available.

In 2015-16 Tasmania had 17,200 people directly employed in tourism, close to the average for the last 10 years of 17,000 and less than the number before the current government came to power.

In Victoria and Western Australia the number of people employed in tourism has consistently increased over the last 10 years with total growth of about 25%. Can we learn from them?

The facts are that even if new tourism jobs have been created other tourism jobs have been lost in equal numbers.

The government’s current approach is not leading to an increase in jobs but no one wants to admit it. Premier Will Hodgman’s ‘Tourism 21’ reports include the TRA figures but he does not admit the lack of growth from year to year.

The government’s tourism policy has been to ride on the back of the low Australian dollar 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.

The government has also 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 develop policies 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? Jobs in tourism do not increase in direct proportion to the growth in visitor numbers or expenditure. 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. Air BNB only makes up some of this loss.

About half of the visitors to Tasmania are non-tourists (most visiting family or friends) who will mostly stay with family and friends and are less likely to undertake tourist activities.

Many small businesses that provide tours and other tourist activities are working a lot more hours per week and for longer each year and do not put on more staff.

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.

The quality of the visitor experience does not get measured in any meaningful sense but should. 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 exceptions 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.

Peter McGlone
Tasmanian Conservation Trust