Australia rues tourism impact of cricket spat
A serious spat on the cricket field between Australia and India earlier this month has created major image problems for Australia in one of its fastest-growing and highest-spending visitor source markets.
After spending millions of dollars in recent years cultivating a market that has an average length of stay of 50 nights per visitor, Tourism Australia officials admit being stunned by the onslaught of criticism in a number of national Indian newspapers about the circumstances under which Australia beat India in the 2nd Test match earlier this month.
Although tourism and sports are supposed to build bonds of friendship, with Thailand being a good example of how the two are merged under a single ministry, reports are coming in about the impact as Indian tourists suddenly begin to see Australia differently from the image cultivated in the tourism promotion campaigns.
In the year ending Oct 2006, Indian visitor arrivals to Australia totalled 90,500, up 10% over the same period of 2005. Many well-heeled Indians also live in the Gulf countries and have played an important role in the 18% growth in the arrivals into Australia from the Middle East in that same period.
In 2006, Australia recorded 83,783 visitors from India, up 23% over 2005. In 2007, the Tourism Forecasting unit is projecting a total of 103,051 visitors.
"Arrivals from India are expected to perform well over the next ten years, with an average annual growth rate of 18% through to the year 2016," says a market brief by Tourism Australia. "The average length of stay for Indian visitors in 2006 was 50 nights, much higher than the average of 30 nights for all visitors."
India is Australia's fifteenth largest source market in terms of total expenditure. In 2006, travellers from India spent $395 million on trips to Australia, with an average expenditure of $5,032 per trip. In 2006, 17% of Indian visitor nights were spent in dispersed areas, or outside the major gateways of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.
Australia is one of the most popular destinations for Indian students and Bollywood film productions.
Says the market brief: "India is the second largest potential travel market in Asia after China and is one of the fastest-growing markets throughout the world. As one of Australia's fastest growing markets, travel for the purpose of visiting friends and relatives and education is expected to remain strong while increased disposable income and economic activity are likely to drive holiday and business travel. In terms of percentage growth, visitor arrivals from India ranks highest amongst all other markets."
However, Tourism Australia officials are now busy compiling an inventory of the massive negative publicity generated by the incident. Among the comments:
A column in The Hindu blasted the Australian cricket team: "In a curious combination of the bully and tantrum-throwing spoilt brat syndromes, they can dish it out but not take it. They seem to believe in a God-given right to determine unilaterally just where the boundaries of good and impermissible behaviour lie."
A Times of India editorial said "If the umpiring was appalling, the behaviour of the Australian cricketers left a bitter taste. The notion that the Australians play 'hard and fair' is becoming worn out."
An Indian Express editorial said: "For a team known for unabashed rudeness, to hope to explain every appeal and protestation on the field as being born of integrity and politeness is, frankly, very rich."
Another editorial in the Asian Age said, "In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of international sport, adversaries are always likely to exchange hot words, and the Australians, who are credited with making an institution of the practice known as 'sledging' that is aimed at the mental disintegration of opponents, are no angels."
Said one Indian travel agent: "They may have won the Test, but they really lost a lot more. It was what you would call a pyrrhic victory. Certainly, it is something well worth studying in the history of tourism crisis management episodes."
Already, a number of Australian state tourism ministers are expressing concern about the impact, especially Queensland, one of the most popular spots for Indians.
Last year, the Gold Coast was given a special funding grant of $80,000 to help boost its share of tourists from India, among other markets. The money was to be used for research to understanding new trends in visitor patterns.
Due to the limited availability of direct non-stop services from India to Australia, many Indians travel via Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, benefiting the airlines of these countries.
To speed up visa issuance, the Australians have also rolled out their Preferred Agency Scheme in joint collaboration with the Department of Immigration and Cultural Affairs to offer expedited visitor and business visa processing to specific travel agencies with a proven track record in Australian visa issuance.
As of last year, 198 agents across 88 agencies in 16 cities participated in the scheme.
Imtiaz Muqbil is executive editor of Travel Impact Newswire, an e-mailed feature and analysis service focusing on the Asia-Pacific travel industry.