by Sinead Francis-Coan, Greens Candidate for Newcastle Council, Ward 3.
Among many things, 2020 was a year when everything changed for tourism.
We were forced to reconnect with our local surroundings and escape to our beaches, parks and gardens instead of taking that international trip we had planned.
We chose carefully where we spent our money, to direct what we could to support local small business.
We took virtual tours of our favourite galleries, recreated trips in our family lounge rooms and made a mass event of taking out our rubbish bins (RIP Bin Nation).
Newcastle has good reason to put locals front and centre.
This shift in focus, from the distant and exotic to the local and engaging, is a pointer to the future of tourism in Newcastle – a future that provides local jobs and income, that is resilient to external economic shocks, and that provides benefits for the whole community.
As we’ve watched the COVID-19 pandemic unfold, we’ve been given the bleak news to expect more pandemics and natural disasters on a bigger scale thanks to climate change.
Increasing our dependence on international tourism can only make us more vulnerable to these kinds of disruptions.
Newcastle has good reason to put locals front and centre. Our largest segment of visitors (more than 40 per cent) – both domestic and international – are here “visiting friends and relatives” and this is predicted to continue.
It seems a smart move would be to find out what locals like to do with their family and friends when they arrive.
These are the things locals will encourage, promote and patronise.
A wide range of stakeholders need to be included in our tourism planning, not just those who are tourism-industry affiliated.
Our destination image has the potential to celebrate the multitude of identities that make Newcastle – the natural, the indigenous, the cultural, the industrial, the post-industrial, the heritage, the innovative, the intellectual, the suburban, the sporting…
Newcastle council was the first to fly the Aboriginal flag in NSW. Tourism provides a perfect opportunity to continue this leadership and celebrate our unique and rich Indigenous culture, sharing with visitors about the country on which they stand.
The new visitor information centre displays welcomes in both Awabakal and Worimi language but there is scope for a much richer engagement that is genuine, authentic and Indigenous-led.
Events have been proposed as a centrepiece of Newcastle’s tourism future. While the recent New Annual might have been a great success (I enjoyed a number of the festival events myself), “Big” events have their problems, as the Newcastle 500 has shown.
They are often transitory, providing a brief sugar-hit before moving elsewhere.
Most of the money and other benefits go to private owners, not local businesses.
Residents and many businesses are disrupted, as are (ironically) many tourists coming here for our uncrowded beaches and historic city centre.
I would love to see the City of Newcastle work with the community to develop criteria and a consultation process that ensure the events we do host are sympathetic to their location, welcomed by the community and have long-term benefits for local business and tourism.
And what of plans for a large-scale convention centre, the same as cities the world over? Would a large-scale space be used, or would our focus be better directed towards improving technological capability at the excellent mid-sized venues we have in order to offer sophisticated hybrid options?
Could Newcastle become a leader in using the virtual reality and remote conferencing technology that we have become used to during the pandemic to attract conferences, rather than another expensive venue?
This would be worth finding out.
The past year has been a challenge to the physical and mental health of most Australians. Our local tourism planning is perfectly positioned to be a part of this broader recovery beyond economic measures.
The many things that make this an exciting, unique and nurturing place to live – a strong community, great environment, vibrant city, and interesting public spaces – is what will support our recovery from this COVID year, and what will attract people to visit and enjoy their stay.
Let’s make this the basis for a tourism strategy for a city that already has so much to offer and set an example for cities around the world.
Sinead Francis-Coan is a postgraduate in leisure and tourism studies from the UoN and Greens candidate for Ward 3