22 Feb 2019
Words Mike Oliver
Far From Ordinary
Tasmania has always held the allure of pristine wilderness, breathtaking scenery, unique flora and fauna. Now there’s so much more. Our island state has dared to be different. The result is a tourism sector now widely regarded to be Australia’s most progressive.
Let’s admit it. Tassie was once the butt of ‘backwater’ jibes, some of them downright insulting. No more. The ‘Apple Isle’ of old has morphed from ‘The Natural State’ to the ‘Island of Inspiration’, and it’s not stopping there.
Last year, visitors spent around $140 million more in Tasmania than in the previous year, expenditure rising 6% to a record $2.4 billion for YE June 2018. Visitor numbers rose again too, up 2% to 1.3 million. That’s after an increase of 9% last year.
Premier, Will Hodgman, who also doubles as Minister for Tourism Hospitality and Events, has boldly declared, “Tasmania’s tourism industry is the best in the country.” His enthusiasm is understandable given the pivotal role a growing visitor economy plays in supporting businesses and jobs across the state.
Of course any discussion about this trailblazing tourism trajectory has to begin with Tasmania’s most audacious benefactor, David Walsh. He rose from Hobart’s working class Glenorchy to become a professional gambler, art collector, wealthy philanthropist and founder of Australia’s largest private museum, the Museum Of Old And New Art (MONA).
Within 12 months of its 2011 opening, MONA became Tasmania’s top tourism attraction, eclipsing even Port Arthur and Cradle Mountain. By 2015, Lonely Planet listed it at No.3 on Australia’s Top 10 ‘ultimate’ sights, beaten only by the Great Barrier Reef and Twelve Apostles. MONA even ranked No.20 on their worldwide Top 500 Places to Visit list, beating Sydney Opera House (#57).
Walsh is widely credited with turning around Tasmania’s tourism industry, MONA’s impact is compared to that of the Guggenheim Museum on Spain’s once drab industrial city, Bilbao.
It is a masterstroke – a showcase of art and history, architecture and indulgence. It’s an attention-grabber, confronting, challenging, engaging, playful, frequently controversial.
The museum itself houses Walsh’s general collection, which is constantly refreshed, some amazing permanent structural elements and installations, and a remarkable rolling exhibition program showcasing the diversity and importance of creativity.
Then there are all the other experiences: the subterranean building itself (all steel and stone, built into a riverside rock face), outdoor sculptures, the Mona Roma ferry to transfer visitors, a library and cinema, Moorilla Winery, The Source fine dining restaurant, and Faro, the latest bar and restaurant in the new Pharos wing.
You can stay there too. Eight striking architect-designed riverfront pavilions welcome guests (from $700 per night including breakfast at The Source and museum entry).
Next will come HOMO (Hotel MONA), a planned $300 million 172-room 5-star hotel of monumental design, cantilevered out 53 metres over water.
It’s easy to go on about MONA’s many innovative and provocative features. But the point really lies in the impact it has had. After all, Walsh’s big motivation (other than that he likes building things) is that MONA’s legacy will be to give others the courage to think outside the box, to take risks.
As Gregor Salmon wrote for the ABC: “…it has changed the way Hobart (I’d say wider Tasmania too) is viewed both from within and without, and prompted (it) to lift its game".
In the first two months after MONA opened, Hobart-related traffic on Hotels.com apparently spiked 40%, and the search figures just kept on rising.
“MONA was not just another gallery. David Walsh's exhibit was renegade stuff, put together with such audacious nous that its shocking brilliance won critics over wholesale. There was simply nothing like it on Earth.”
Speaking to a tourism and business leaders lunch last year, Walsh said: “You don’t need a plan, you don’t need a vision, you just need to do stuff, and governments, tourist authorities, individuals need to find ways of encouraging others to do things.
“It’s incremental advances, that’s what creates wealth in communities, but what you want is for individuals to take risks.”
It’s a lesson we can all take on board – even the smallest accommodation business – to be creative, celebrate unique character and local assets, be willing to do something new or different.
One thing is for sure, whether inspired by MONA’s intrepid example or because of its success, many more tourism operators, corporate players and investors are upping the ante to back Tasmania’s tourism future.
The state government has better resourced peak marketing bodies Tourism Tasmania and Brand Tasmania, expanding their capacity as statutory authorities.
In fact, Brand Tasmania has embraced the gutsy and daring spirit to proudly celebrate our state’s newfound edge with a catchcry proclaiming we are “far from ordinary”.
Underlining that claim is a modern crop of festivals that build on Tasmania’s already great reputation for event tourism, long headlined the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, Australian Wooden Boat Festival, The Taste and Targa Tasmania.
Now (yes, David Walsh had a hand in this too), the program has expanded with bold new offerings.
Mona Foma (festival of music and art known as Mofo), previously held at Mona and across Hobart, will move north this summer to Launceston. Each June in Hobart, Dark Mofo is an annual winter solstice festival celebrating the usual Mona obsessions, music, art and food, with a nude icy Derwent River swim thrown in.
The entire state is capitalising on the value of event tourism. In the north, I can think of Junction Arts, Festivale, BOFA, and the Tamar Valley Writers Festival. The West Coast embraces the ‘dare to be different’ mantra with its biennial arts festival, The Unconformity.
Tasmania’s tourism success is a reward for understanding our unique differences, knowing what we do best, and doing it better.
We’ve long focused on core visitor drawcards, especially extraordinary natural assets (the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Cradle Mountain, Freycinet Peninsula, Bay of Fires) and history (Port Arthur and other convict sites, historic buildings such as Ritchie’s Mill in Launceston, Hobart’s Salamanca and Henry Jones Art Hotel).
Nature-based tourism is a massive attraction with the figures from the Parks and Wildlife Service showing overall visitation increased by 7% in 2017-18 to 1.4 million. Close to half of all visitors say they came specifically to see our national parks.
But, more and more, exceptional gourmet food and cool climate wines are driving visitation, gaining a well-deserved international culinary reputation and ‘paddock to plate’ following.
Cider producers, craft breweries, gin and whiskey distillers (we produced the world’s best single malt whisky in 2014 and again his year!) now share top billing with award-winning wineries in the Tamar Valley, Pipers River, East Coast, Derwent Valley and Coal River Valley regions.
The list of acclaimed foodie haunts grows ever longer – Stillwater, Black Cow and Geronimo in Launceston, Landscape Bar & Grill, The Glasshouse and Templo in Hobart, The Agrarian Kitchen Eatery and Store in New Norfolk, just a tiny taste.
And it’s not only major towns that benefit. The latest Visitor Survey showed all four regions experienced growth in total visitor numbers in FY2018. Holiday nights were up 11% overall, with the Cradle Coast showing the strongest regional visitation growth rate of 4%.
More than 85% of Tasmania’s tourism operators are small or micro-businesses. So it’s vital that growth is encouraged across the board.
Investment in new infrastructure is critical. The Overland and Three Capes Tracks captured the world’s attention and have encouraged visitors to spend more time and money in regional communities.
Now the government has pledged $20 million to deliver another iconic multi-day, hut-based walk, with submissions open until January 2019. Drive tourism is also a major catalyst.
The spectacular West Coast is set to become the next targeted drive experience under the ‘Journeys Project’. Following the success of the Great Eastern Drive, credited with a 20% increase in visitors to the region since its development, the Western Wilds Drive has tremendous potential. Northern, Southern and North-West Journeys will follow.
Far more intensive and ambitious tourism infrastructure proposals include Hobart’s Macquarie Point Masterplan for the 9ha waterfront site adjacent to the CBD, the Mt Wellington Cableway proposal, and controversial Cambria Green mega-development proposal overlooking Freycinet National Park.
These are not without their opponents, and will need to be managed very carefully to ensure we don’t undermine our hugely valuable reputation for ‘natural charm’. But, with growth comes development.
A statement from the Office of the Coordinator General told us an estimated $1.07 billion in total investment was earmarked for Tasmania’s “hotel pipeline projects across the state, as of April 2018.” These projects, it said, would “contribute an additional 4,182 hotel rooms around the state to cater for Tasmania’s growing accommodation demand.”
At the time, Tourism Industry Council CEO, Luke Martin agreed careful management was essential, saying: “We need to plan for investment and growth that is really keeping with Tasmania’s brand. There’s enormous opportunity for developers at all ends of the scale.”
We’d have to agree. For everyone in the sector, it’s an exciting and inspiring time to be part of Tasmania’s trailblazing tourism story.