Early retirees, Chinese students and indigenous Australians will be targeted as employees in a plan to boost often-criticised service standards in the tourism industry.
Federal Tourism Minister Martin Ferguson also wants to facilitate greater foreign investment in Australian tourism, train local tourism operators to be more digital savvy and improve the quality of accommodation, particularly in regional areas.
Mr Ferguson said the strength of the economy and the resources boom made it hard for the tourism industry to compete for workers.
“The rates of pay are just way beyond tourism operators,” he said.
“A lot of them are small and medium sized businesses going from week to week.
“You have a pool of Australians out there who are work ready – people who have retired early and the share market is down.
“We have to start to think about employing these people in a variety of positions.”
Mr Ferguson also wants to see a greater focus on indigenous tourism in Australia, with subsidies for the training and employment of indigenous people.
“We have a huge potential workforce which we have neglected for a variety of reasons,” he said.
With China the fastest-growing market for Australian tourism, Mr Ferguson also sees an opportunity to recruit Chinese students living in Australia, who are permitted to work up to 20 hours a week as part of their visa conditions, to the tourism industry.
Despite the challenges of the strong Australian dollar and economic uncertainty in the US and Europe, there was a five per cent rise in overseas visitors over the past financial year.
The biggest rise was in Chinese tourists, up 17 per cent over the year to more than 580,000 visitors.
It is now the third largest source market, closely behind the UK.
While Australians are taking a record number of overseas holidays, domestic tourism is also up.
The most recent National Visitor Survey showed Australians took 73 million overnight trips in the year to March – a five per cent rise on the previous year.
The biggest growth is in the short breaks market, with Australians choosing longer resort holidays in destinations such as Bali and Thailand and long weekends away in Australia.
“You can’t say to Australians ‘you can’t go overseas’,” Mr Ferguson said.
“But the short breaks market is just as important.”
While he agrees with businessman James Packer that Chinese tourists are attracted by casinos, Mr Ferguson believes they will also come to see natural attractions.
“The development of the Chinese market is no different to the development of the Japanese market – initially it will be group travel and they will come here for a few days and be attracted to the major cities,” he said.
“Then they will start venturing off and over time they will want to go and do something themselves.”
Mr Ferguson said he was pleased with Mr Packer’s announcement of plans for a luxury hotel in Perth, and wanted to see similar investment in other states.
He said Australian tourism needed to chase foreign investment in tourism attractions and hotels.
“We haven’t done enough in the past to promote Australia as a good place for investment,” he said.
“We have high occupancy rates and not bad tariffs. You only have to go places like Perth to see how much it costs for a night.”
As well as becoming more digitally savvy, Mr Ferguson said Australian businesses could also cater more to the Chinese market by adapting shopping hours to suit Chinese tourists, who love taking gifts home to family and friends.
He admitted some tourist attractions and was tired – particularly in regional areas – and wants to help improve standards through funding grants.
“I travel a lot in Australia and the accommodation quality is variable, but I have seen some improvements,” he said.
“We’re not just about increased numbers – we’re also about high yield tourists.”
Mr Ferguson said high-end tourist attractions and resorts like Saffire Freycinet in Tasmania and Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island in South Australia were especially attractive to high yield tourists.
“The Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart is a primary example… visitation to MONA is now higher than Port Arthur but they’re working in partnership to try to help one another,” he said.