Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Belshaw's World - not such a lonely planet in a cafe full of cobbers

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 3 November 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010

Eighteen months ago we promised to take Clare (youngest) to Greece. She is studying Ancient History at Macquarie University.

It proved to be a bit of a battle to get there, but we had promised, and finally we went. In doing so, we decided to focus on the Greek Islands. I had always been interested in the Islands, partly for historical reasons, partly because they are the ancestral home of so many Australians of Greek descent.

I write a fair bit about history because I love it. That’s one of the things I can blame on my old school history teacher, George Crossle!

The history was fun.

The Greek Islands are saturated in history. Each island has its own history, stretching back thousands of years.

The ancient Minoan city of Akrotiri on Santorini had running water several thousand years before Armidale! Kind of puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

The sea was central to Akrotiri’s prosperity. Its merchants traded across the ancient seas, visiting exotic lands. The things they saw were recorded in art, some of which has survived to this day.

The history of the Greek Islands is a bloody one. The sea could bring prosperity, but it also brought threats. Over the years, competition among the varying powers led to occupation and re-occupation of the various islands. Long periods of peace were followed by bloody war.

There is something very modern about this competition. It resonates.

Venice acquired control of Crete in 1204AD as part of the distribution of spoils that followed the sack of Constantinople. Like the Athenians before and the British later, the Venetian maritime empire depended on trade and control of the sea. Huge fortresses were built, but in the end power depended on the navy.

Venice’s strategic position was always complicated. It was constantly threatened by bigger powers, caught in the ever changing web of political and religious rivalries between east and west.

Venice responded with a mixture of force and diplomacy. To assist this, a constant stream of secret intelligence and diplomatic reports flowed back to the city from different parts of its empire and beyond.

Today, visitors to Venice or to the old Venetian provincial city of Rethymno on Crete marvel at the faded grandeur. What struck me was just how long Venice survived. After all, it ruled Crete for four hundred years.

Despite my interest in history, my attention was constantly attracted by other things.

I was travelling with four women, all addicted to shopping. I suspect I speak for most males when I say that shopping is not a spectator sport. Still, this gave me plenty of time to gaze around, to watch the passing parade.

Tourism is central to the Greek economy, more so to the Greek Islands. Many of those islands would have been completely de-populated without the combination of tourism with remittances home from migrants in countries such as Australia.

Partly because of our high dollar, the Australian presence is very noticeable.

On Santorini, I was attracted to a local café by a huge din. I found myself watching the last five minutes of the first AFL grand final, surrounded by fellow Australians. Not one but two cafes broadcast it live. Both were crowded.

Over the trip I chatted to many tourists from various nationalities including Australian, asking what drew them to the Greek Islands. Of course they all mentioned things such as ancient sites, but in the end it came down to what I can only describe as the experience.

I have suggested before in this column that one of the reasons for failure in New England and NSW tourism lies in out failure to focus on the tourist experience. We obsess about attractions and events, but lose sight of the broader picture.

As I watched and chatted on the various islands, I started jotting down notes for a new series on tourism promotion. Then, when I came back, I got out the guide books to compare the Australian and Greek equivalents. The comparisons were quite stark; Northern NSW really suffers as compared to its Greek equivalents.

As it happened, Monday’s announcement by Lonely Planet that Newcastle had been listed as one of the world’s top ten cities for travel in 2011 has really put the cat among the pigeons when it comes to tourism promotion.

In the parlance so beloved by officialdom, NSW has two tourism brands, Brand NSW and Brand Sydney. Both brands are tired, neither has worked very well.

There has been little room in this two brand world for a more differentiated tourism strategy. Newcastle people have long complained about this.

Now, in a single blow, Lonely Planet has created a third and rival brand, Brand Newcastle based on life style and the visitor experience. I think that that’s a good thing.

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