Friday, October 22, 2010

Greek lessons for New England tourism - the importance of experiences

In my first post in this series, I wrote:

When I was chair of Tourism Armidale, we spoke of attractions and events. This narrow focus, then and still (I think) part of NSW tourism orthodoxy, lies at the heart of tourism failure in New England.

Tourism is not about attractions and events. This is simply a way of categorising certain tourist activities. Rather, tourism is about experiences. This is what Greece has done, and done well.

Objectively, there is a certain sameness about Greek tourism. You find the same touristy things in every place; the jewellery stores, the postcards, narrow streets in old towns, ruins, the inevitable archeological museum or museums, beaches; even the food tends to be similar. Yet somehow it comes together into a package.

Consider the beaches on the Greek Island. Many are very pretty. However, by Australian standards the sand (if there is sand) is poor, the water still. They are also very crowded.

To the European tourists who throng the beaches, they are a marvelous contrast to home. Sun, heat, sparkling water. To Australians, this is less true. Yet Australian visitors still throng there because they, the beaches, are seen to be different. They are part of the experience.

The scenery on the Greek Islands is barren, rocky and scrubby to Australian eyes. There are scenes of great beauty, no-one could deny the superb views from Santorini, but that is not universally true. Yet again, things are packaged. The tourists who flock to see the sun set at Fira or Oia see sunsets no better than those seen in parts of New England, yet (as we did) they come for the experience.

History pervades Greece, with Greece itself deeply embedded in Western consciousness. The millions of tourists that throng the ancient sites including the Acropolis, Delos and Delphi are not just visiting attractions, but also entering into the Greek and often their own pasts.

In the midst of the ancient monuments, it is easy to forget that much Greek history is quite recent. Greece obtained initial independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, the capital was transferred to Athens in 1833. The various tourism guides refer to aspects of this modern history as it relates to individual areas. Thus we learn, for example, that the Ionian Islands were governed as a British protectorate, the United States of the Ionian Islands, from 1815 to 1864 then being ceded to Greece. This is linked to attractions and visible signs.

The net result of all this is a totality of experiences that really has no Australian equivalences with our focus on attractions and events.

In my last post in this series, Greek lessons for New England tourism - information, I compared the paucity of Australian tourism information and especially at regional level with the Greek equivalent. The Australian Lonely Planet Guide does have a general history section, there is some material on NSW, but once we drop below this there is absolutely no integration between history and the area.

If we look at the fifty or so pages on different parts of New England, the area is essentially treated as a thoroughfare between Sydney and Brisbane along the Pacific and New England highways. This dictates an attractions/events focus. It also means that parts of New England are left out entirely. You might be able to use the guide to decide what places to stop at while visiting, but it is hopeless in planning a New England tour.

In fairness to Lonely Planet, Australia is a very big country and the guide has to be related to dominant visitor interests. That is small comfort to those like me who are concerned to promote New England. That is also why we need a stand-alone New England tour guide, one promoting the New England experience.    

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