HOLDING THEM TO ACCOUNT IN 2020

In July 2019 the Courier Mail hosted a Future Tourism Event in Brisbane. Bernard Salt was there as usual and there was a lot to crow about after a successful conclusion to the Commonwealth Games. Here are some links to that event that makes for interesting reading given our recent experiences:

https://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/future-seq/brisbane-tourism-airport-eyes-23-new-direct-routes/news-story/af06be253d100c6f0a2482e0dbe7c76c

https://www.couriermail.com.au/news/opinion/queensland-tourism-industrys-future-looking-sunny/news-story/c95572a2c32232f114ae9580b10bed80

https://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/future-seq/queensland-is-well-placed-for-a-boom-in-chinese-tourism/news-story/25cd210dc8acfd2fed379e26e51d3665

https://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/future-seq/brisbane-tourism-extended-stays-worth-18m-a-day/news-story/7b4a9de6c41f3ccd30baf98b38869558

So it was no surprise therefore that the Cairns Post followed the Brisbane experience given the recent admissions from those in the industry here that all was not well in the north. Surprise, surprise. We have been ignoring the facts for too long. The glaringly obvious take away from last week’s Cairns Post luncheon is “Have we not heard this all before?”. Interestingly, the difference this time around is if you paid for a sponsorship package you got to influence what was discussed and much of the agenda. Lines were blurred between editorial and advertorial. No surprises there, as was the communiqué at the end proclaiming that the economy is teetering, we are over invested in tourism and now we need to all pull together as one united group to get out of the hole that we have dug for ourselves. Now is no time for fractured voices or an alternate view. It was a slick marketing exercise to get us to that point. Understanding that in my time here we have weathered the SARS crisis, the Japanese economic downturn, the disastrous pilots strike and weathered, but not recovered from the GFC in the past decade. So where to from here?

Now the fact is we are further from Brisbane than Melbourne is two states away, so what relevance does Cairns have in the thinking of Brisbane in any event? None. The answer then is we need to be more assertive ourselves and take ownership of our issues and deal with them. Our future is in having an interlinked economy that works and those responsible pull their weight and do as they say they have promised. There is no doubt that many are hurting throughout the community and confidence is shot, but this would not have been quite so bad had we stuck to our destination brand marketing of Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef, had the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority more robustly stood up to the environmental naysayers and pronounced to the world that the GBR was recovering brilliantly and was demonstrating again wonderful resilience and come visit, had the State Government commenced the $175M expansion of the Cairns Convention Centre when promised, had the State Government not had a moment of madness and promise then fail to deliver on a Global Tourism Hub destroying investor confidence in the city, had the State Government and the Cairns Airport seen to the commencement of the development of an airport freight hub as promised giving some sorely needed impetus to our exporters and had the Cairns Airport responded more appropriately to the disastrous loss of our international aviation access and orchestrating a coordinated response to these challenges including an upgrade of the international terminal. Hindsight is a wonderful ally however, but the truth is this is of our own making. Coronavirus just emphasised the economic fragility of our city and our willingness to believe the spin.

For starters lets agree that we live in a wonderful part of the world, we are blessed with a wonderful environment which is the envy of many, our geographic location provides wonderful regional engagement opportunities internationally, and generally we have an industrious mindset to get out there and have a crack. So what are we whinging about? Why have we constantly got our hand out like beggars demanding governments fill the bowl when we know they won’t? Why this cargo cult mentality comparing government expenditure here to expenditure elsewhere when much of it is irrelevant. Cairns was always the entrepreneurial capital of Australia. The proven formulae always works. Under promise and over deliver. Provide an investment environment that supports private capital investment on the back of properly conceived and realistically applied public infrastructure spending by appropriate levels of government. In other words have an agreed direction and plan with realistic propositions. Not grand plans that have no chance of being realised. That is the stuff of fools. We need water security, an upgraded road connection between Cairns past Kuranda and through to Mareeba. The economic reasons for this are obvious and will attract private and not government investment into a functioning airfreight hub. Investment into HMAS Cairns is assured because of the strategic influences. The growth of naval facilities is a given so the challenge is for the Council and the Seaport to get the planning stuff in sync to cater for all contingencies including regional containerised shipping facilities and a portside logistics hub to include a rail terminus. Sound fanciful? Not at all and then you ad tourism to the mix.

Governments have responsibilities for infrastructure and service delivery. Community leadership has a collective responsibility to ensure that we get our fair share, but beyond that the private sector participates in delivering the growth, employment and wealth and we need to ensure that it is attractive for them. There is much talk about marketing funds. There are various mechanisms to achieve this, but it starts with a fair and broadly based system implemented by the Council, and is supported by the visitor, as well as in our case the airport as our regional development partner. The Council and particularly the Mayor needs to demonstrate some courage to do this. It should not be left to the Cairns punter alone to shoulder this burden. State Governments are no chance of agreeing to do this as was embarrassingly discovered this past week. If we do not have sufficient sustained marketing funding and have yet another failed regional brand marketing frolic it will take decades for Cairns to recover. The miserable performance of TTNQ and the Cairns Airport in recent years needs correcting not to mention the ill conceived promises of others. It is time to hold them to account.

(Kevin Byrne is a former Mayor of Cairns. He is currently President of Enterprise North and the Cairns Tourism Industry Association. These thoughts are his own)

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