White sandy beaches, abundant native wildlife and lush rolling vineyards are images synonymous with Australia, which have long been spruiked by the country’s tourism industry. But in recent months, an altogether different image of Australia has been blasted out by the world’s media. Harrowing pictures of burned koalas, destroyed communities and smoke-filled cities are filling newspapers and TV screens in the wake of the months-long bushfire crisis ravaging the country.
So far, 28 people have been killed, an estimated 15.6 million acres of bush, forest and parks has burned and thousands of homes have been razed to the ground. It’s a stark contrast to the idyllic scenes that feature in Tourism Australia’s $38 million Philausophy campaign, which has now been paused in the UK as the agency reconsiders its options “over the coming weeks and months”.
While the Philausophy campaign was met with some criticism, Carl Ratcliff, chief strategist at DDB Sydney, believes it could still prove to be a good creative direction to attract visitors to the country in the aftermath of the bushfires.
“Like or loathe it, Philausophy was intended to sell the personality of Australians—their inherent optimism and likeability—to the outside world,” he says. “The people not the place. While that mettle is now being tested, perhaps it is the time for this idea to earn its keep. Possibly it can come to represent a more robust, less cliched outlook and genuine approach to life, a kind of Blitz spirit.”
The extent of the damage to tourism in affected areas is already being measured, with Australian Tourism Industry Council (ATIC) executive director Simon Westaway telling The Age it is "reaching towards $1 billion". While he attributed the bulk of holiday cancellations to domestic travellers, he added that "the amount of negative publicity on Australia overseas should not be dismissed.
"The branding of the country to the outside world won't have an immediate impact on the industry in terms of international visitors, but federal and state governments and the industry need to ensure Australia continues to be positioned as a pristine and accessible environment and continues to be seen as an appealing destination."
Charlie Cook, creative director at JimJam, believes that acting quickly to promote interstate travel is key. “It will be a tough task for marketing teams, however, most regions still have areas and activities that can be accessed by visitors. We need to focus on these and promote some visitation in the short term to begin rebuilding these communities.”
Ratcliffe agrees, anticipating that interstate tourism will become a priority. “Interstate travel has been growing fast and that’s likely to continue,” he says. “Some travellers may make their way to townships affected by fire, contributing to local economies. Tourism marketing would certainly be thinking about how to amplify this manner of altruism. Federal and state governments will be concerned that this disaster is the kick our economy doesn’t need given its current spluttering.”
In South Australia, which experienced devastating fires in the Adelaide Hills and on Kangaroo Island, the government has acted quickly, launched a new campaign yesterday (19 January) designed to encourage South Australians and interstate tourists to ‘book out’ the affected areas.
The campaign coincides with the first large cruise ship returning to Kangaroo Island since the devastating bushfires.
“Today is about drawing a line in the sand, and saying “we are back”, and we want to tell everyone South Australia is open for business,” said Premier Steven Marshall in a statement. “The #BookThemOut campaign is all about getting behind our tourism regions and helping these local communities, businesses and families get back on their feet.
“The cruise ship sector is hugely important to Kangaroo Island’s $140 million visitor economy. Having the Sun Princess dock—with 2,000 passengers—is going to inject a substantial economic benefit to the community and also send a strong signal that we are on the road to recovery.”
Brent Hill, executive director of marketing at the South Australian Tourism Commission (SATC) added that it has pulled all of its existing campaigns and moved its sole focus to bushfire recovery.
“Everything else is on hold for now. The impact of these fires has seen a lot of cancellations, not just for immediate travel but upcoming travel too, some as far out as the middle of the year. Our first order of business was to address some of the misconceptions: Kangaroo Island hasn’t been burnt away, the Adelaide Hills still has stunning vineyards, and the whole of Australia is not on fire. Yes, the bushfires happened but now it’s time to rebuild.
“Right now, globally the perception is ‘Australia is burning’. While parts of it are, and it's horrific, large parts aren’t, and they remain as beautiful as ever… It’s my team’s job to put out what is magical about South Australia to the world. We want people to know what is available in our regions, that it’s amazing, and has so much to offer holiday seekers.”
While the industry is yet to fully feel the effects of international tourists cancelling holidays, the Australian Tourism Export Council told the Australian Financial Review cancellations by tourists from large markets such as the US, UK and China could cost the country at least $4.5 billion by the end of the year.
The images of stranded holidaymakers in Victoria’s Gippsland and mask-wearing tourists in a smoke-filled Sydney have clearly sparked a panic for the government, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying Australian tourism is facing "its biggest challenge in living memory". He has pledged a $76 million package, which includes $20 million for marketing to domestic travellers and $25 million for a global tourism campaign.
In a statement he said: "One in 13 Australian jobs rely on tourism and hospitality, so our $76 million investment is an urgent injection to help all those hotels, restaurants and cafes and tour operators get back on their feet.
"This is make or break for many businesses and tourist hot spots and not just in those areas directly hit by the bushfires. This is about getting more visitors to help keep local businesses alive and protect local jobs right across the country and especially in those areas so directly devastated such as Kangaroo Island and the Adelaide Hills, the Blue Mountains and right along the NSW Coast and East Gippsland in Victoria."
For marketing teams, the challenge now is how to make Australia appealing once again to travellers.
“There are two possible areas,” believes Ratcliff, that marketing could focus on. “Food and wine offered a winning platform a few years back and it could do so again. And, nature remains a powerful proposition, especially one might argue, as it repairs or as it features in the extraordinary interior. This said, the damage done to Australia’s brand will be intense. Marketing may wish to focus on the repair and clear up as much as any other message.”
Ratcliffe also believes that marketing the country in the long term could be greatly impacted by the climate, particularly if drought continues to plague Australia.
“Reservoir levels in Sydney are very, very low at present, for instance,” he says. “A lack of fresh water and record temperature highs might make selling any manner of dream difficult. What is most alarming is the notion of a new normal of extended fire seasons. That said, other countries have managed to offset natural or man-made disaster over time. Consider the awful likes of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 affecting Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, or New York’s 9/11.”