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Free camping doesn't necessarily mean cheap tourists
By Charlie McKillop
Extract from ABC Australia
A survey of visitors has shown people are flocking to North Queensland outback destinations, but they're spending only half as much as the average tourist to Queensland.
The report shows more than 58,000 visitors to the Gulf of Carpentaria spent $80 a day compared with $160 state-wide.
Rob McAlister, from Gulf Savannah Development, says the low tourist spend is mostly due to the region being seen as a camping destination.
But he says remote communities seeking to gain a greater share of the tourism dollar should not be discouraged.
"People aren't doing the free camping thing to save money, they're doing it because they want a natural experience," he said.
"They don't want to sit in a caravan park surrounded by grey nomads with generators going.
"They want to get out in the bush enjoy the bird life, the sense of the vast open spaces, the big blue sky, that sort of stuff.
"The shires in the Gulf have all taken a different approach to free camping."
The visitor survey, compiled by Gulf Savannah Development and Savannah Way Limited, estimates tourism is worth $70 million to the Gulf region, making it the third most important industry behind grazing and mining. Of the 1750 visitors who responded, 74 per cent said they were "very satisfied" with their experience and would come back - one of the highest ratings in Australia.
Mr McAlister says respondents indicated they would embrace new tourism products such as bush camping or farmstays on cattle properties, day trips to Mornington Island and historical tours to old mine sites such as the Cumberland chimney at Georgetown.
"Maybe we need to get away from just talking up the Gulf as a fishing destination," he said.
"Let's talk about the fantastic wildlife we've got, about the Indigenous cultures, about our history - the fact Normanton at one stage was the second or third biggest town in Queensland.
"Let's talk about the fact Burns Philp, a major commercial empire that stretched all through the Pacific, started in Normanton in the 1800s and the Burns Philp building is still there.
"These are great stories but I'm not sure we in the Gulf are actually telling those stories to our tourists."
Mr McAlister says the results highlight the opportunity as well as challenge for rural communities to become part of the tourism economy.
"The two towns that are capturing the most dollars are Karumba and Mt Surprise and they have a diverse range of tourism products. They've got things for tourists to spend money on," he said.
"Places like Georgetown and Burketown, a lot of people just aren't going to the towns and a lot of people when they do go to the towns, they're not spending much money.
"Often there aren't many tours running out of those towns, the range of accommodation is fairly limited. They might go to the pub, get a meal and a beer, they might get a campsite for the night, but they're not really spending any more money."