Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Belshaw's World - Armidale is different and difference sells

Back in 2006, the then Labor Government introduced a new state plan. I did it the courtesy of actually looking at in detail because I thought that the concept was a good one.

To do this, I started by defining what I saw as New England’s needs. By New England I mean not the New England, but the broader new state New England from the southern edge of the Hunter to the border.

This took me quite a long time since this area does not formally exist. I collected statistics and prepared policy analysis. What were New England’s problems? What might be done about them?

I then examined the new State Plan against my analysis. Sadly, I concluded that even if every one of the thousands of targets was delivered, it would leave New England just where it was before in terms of key needs.

Blow me down, it seems to have happened again.

The trigger this time was some writing that I was doing on tourism.

A week back, David Whitley wrote a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald Sorry Australia, Europe rules. He compared Australia adversely to Europe, suggesting that things like the Opera House cannot compete.

These European attractions were always going to appeal. There was nothing Australia's tourism authorities could do about them. What they should do was differentiate and sing about what Australia could do better instead.

I suppose that we are all locals at heart.

Country people (and universities) cannot help comparing themselves with bigger fish. Armidale can offer good coffee, all the features you can find in Sydney.

Sydney people are just as bad. People should come to enjoy Sydney’s cosmopolitan life style. Our food is as good as anywhere in the world. Yawn!

Armidale or New England cannot compete with Sydney on Sydney’s own turf, nor can Sydney compete with global centres on their grounds. It is difference that sells.

This problem is not new.

Rod, one of my blogging colleagues, was at UNE in the 1990s. He got very angry when the then mayor and VC said things like “the area has all the features you could want in a city" or “this region can offer the same university experience as a city university”.

As Rod said, how dumb can you get! Armidale and UNE were so different and that difference was what made it worth more than studying at a city university or any other for that matter.

In writing on these issues I made the point that the broader new state New England needed its own tourism strategy, one that would promote the area’s specific features. Not the tablelands, not the country, but one that capitalised on the very specific differences, commonalities and linkages across an area larger than the UK.

Anybody who has been involved in tourism will know that NSW tourism promotion has been a mess for a very long time. There has been no coherence, no stability. Branding strategies come and go.

From a New England perspective using New England in both a narrow and broader sense, our own image has been destroyed in a greater mess.

As I said in one piece of writing, if you think I’m wrong just try to answer these question: what is NSW’s tourism message? If you say NSW, what core images come to mind? Then compare this to the other states and territories.

I thought that maybe I was being unfair in all this given a new government, so I went to the new state plan (http://2021.nsw.gov.au/).

There are differences in ideology and emphasis. In fairness to the National Party, there is a greater regional emphasis in the new plan. Yet it is still the same mess of disconnected performance indicators.

And on tourism? It doesn’t appear to exist. There is no tourism strategy, no indication of the ways this might fit in, not even a performance indicator that I could find.

Mind you, there is a new tourism body Destination NSW, which is developing another strategic plan. Something may come of this.

I accept that I am biased at many levels. Among other things, I believe that New England needs its own state to have any chance of making progress. I am also quite one eyed when it comes to the need for New England advancement.

Accepting this, my charge on tourism is simply this: it is up to the Sydney Government to prove that it can deliver on the things that will benefit the North. I doubt that it can.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 2 November 2011. 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, here for 2011.

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