Aw look, Crocodile Dundee has left the building

Aw look, Crocodile Dundee has left the building

Tourism Australia sells itself short ... again. Why an outdated image is no way to promote one of the world’s great destinations

When it comes to Aussie tourism, it was one television commercial that changed everything.

Paul Hogan, the lovable larrikin who would later become known as Mick “Crocodile” Dundee, introducing Australia -- and its culture -- to the world.

After flirting with a bikini model on a beach and poking fun at U.S. accents, he invites curious Americans over with the offer of an “extra shrimp on the barbie.”

Launched on U.S. television in the run-up to the 1984 Super Bowl, the commercial moved Australia from number 78 on the dream holiday destination for Americans to number one.

To this day, it remains one of the most memorable and successful tourism campaigns in history.

Fast forward to 2008. I’m sitting in a crowded lecture hall at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum with 100 other journalists for the media launch of Tourism Australia’s latest multi-million-dollar campaign, “Incredible: Australia Come Walkabout.”

Piggybacking on the release of director Baz Luhrmann’s new on-screen epic “Australia” and directed by the big man himself, the campaign would see an Aboriginal boy advising stressed office workers in wet, gloomy cities to “go walkabout” in Australia’s picturesque Outback.

Redefining failure?

Crocodile DundeeFair dinkum -- Mick's still the man. Not.“The movie has the capacity to redefine the way Australians and the rest of the world see Australia as a destination,” said Minister of Tourism Martin Ferguson, as if he were in the film business.

It would help reverse the slide in visitor numbers, he added, or he’d eat his hat.

Then Luhrmann got up and spoke and whatever chance remained of asking meaningful questions about the efficacy of the campaign blew out the window as starstruck press showered him with compliments dressed as questions.

I considered throwing in a curveball but it would’ve been inappropriate.

I was reporting on travel and this was now obviously an entertainment piece.

A few months later “Australia” was released. It bombed on the opening weekend, derided by The Sydney Morning Herald as a “compilation of every Australian cliché you could imagine” and “the best-marketed flop the world has known.”

On a side note, more than $50 million (US$51 million) of taxpayers’ money our tourism bosses bet on the film bombed, too.

If it had been the first time they’d indulged in such a flight of fantasy, the gaffe may have been forgivable.

But it wasn’t. And now they’re doing it again.

More of the same

Baz LuhrmannBaz Luhrmann gets in the way of the message. Again.This June, Tourism Australia released “There’s Nothing Like Australia” – another glossy, cliché-ridden TV spot asking the world to come visit the same beaches, reefs and rainforests Paul Hogan so convincingly sold the world three decades ago.

There’s no question the ad is beautifully shot and significantly more sophisticated than Lurhmann’s laughable attempt.

In fact, it’s so well shot that it should win a volley of advertising-industry awards.

But it’s not supposed to be about awards and production quality.

It’s supposed to be about putting backsides on plane seats, filling hotel rooms, restaurants and bars.

Visitor numbers in Australia may be on the rise, but the industry “has fallen on tough times,” according to IBISworld’s tourism market research.

It’s seen five years of consecutive decline in value terms and a lot of people who rely on tourism are going out of business.

And the bureaucrats charged with helping them think they’re in Hollywood.

In its defense, Tourism Australia told me, “it’s a bit crude to measure marketing campaigns [in the face of other problems like the] high dollar, global economic issues, sovereign debt, terrorism, natural disasters, air capacity and airfares.”

True. But many here are sick of these excuses.

If Tourism Australia can’t fix the problem, it may as well stop throwing our money down a hole.

More on CNNGo: Tourism Australia campaign blasted over boozers

Bill Barker, the American advertising guru who directed the Paul Hogan campaign in the United States for seven years said directly that “lifestyle” was the secret to his success.

“It was clear we had to move past the postcard or travelogue style of travel advertising of the past and connect with Americans,” he stated.

And how to live up to that tall order?

“By inviting them to experience the country and immerse themselves in a different lifestyle,” claimed Barker.

Keeping it real

Bondi BeachIs this "typical" Australia?The lifestyle portrayed in Tourism Australia’s latest ad -- sun and surf and adventures in the Outback -- hasn’t changed in 10 years.

And all those things can be found next door in Southeast Asia for a lot less than what they cost here.

So what should our tourism ads look like?

To begin with, they should be set at least in part in the country’s cities.

Not only would urban settings present a realistic view of the modern Australian lifestyle visitors can expect to encounter, but they are world-class destinations in themselves.

Plus, they happen to be where tourists -- both incoming and domestic -- spend most, if not all, of their time.

Tourism Australia’s own stats show visitors are far more likely to visit Sydney’s Star Casino, Melbourne’s Chinatown or Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall than the Bungle Bungles, Kangaroo Island or Wine Glass Bay.

“I couldn’t agree more,” says opposition tourism spokesperson Brendan Smyth.

“Our cities have so much to offer in terms of architecture, fashion, design, fine food, art, museums, music and entertainment.”

“But these ads are still stuck in an earlier age. Tourists are looking for far more sophisticated experiences and I don’t think we make enough of the places that offer those things.”

Vibrant, quirky ... honest

MelbourneOr is Melbourne where it's at?To see an example of Australia being marketed successfully, check out Tourism Victoria’s most recent “Play Melbourne” campaign or one of its earlier incarnations like “Lose Yourself in Melbourne” or the offbeat “That’s Melbourne” ad.

Vibrant and quirky with a European feel, they showcase the Victorian capital in an honest, sometimes brilliant, light.

Think train stations on rainy days, hidden laneway bars, boutiques, art galleries and manicured parks.

They show a place where visitors can engage with life, love, people and art.

And they recognize that tourism in Australia today is not about big rocks and furry animals that people have seen thousands of times before.

It’s about the old man you talked to at a corner store, the intriguing girl or boy you locked eyes with at a bar, the gourmet pizza you ate at such and such a restaurant and the book you read in your hotel room on a rainy day.

And it’s about the mystery that happens when we arrive at a new place.

Tourism Victoria gets it. Why can’t Tourism Australia get it, too?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ian Lloyd Neubauer.

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Ian Lloyd Neubauer is a Sydney-based freelance journalist specializing in adventure travel. He has reported extensively across East Asia and the South Pacific and is the author of two travel novels, Getafix (2004) and Maquis (2006), which is being turned into a feature film in consultation with Fox Studios.

Read more about Ian Lloyd Neubauer