All roads lead to bumper Outback tourism revival

Relaxed post-COVID restrictions, and ongoing overseas travel bans, make Queensland’s regional tourist operators confident about the future.

Feb 24, 2021, updated Feb 24, 2021
Panelists at the Outback Tourism launch, from left: Richmond Shire Mayor John Wharton, Alan Smith, Longreach, Barb Mason, Cunnamulla, Graham Reid, Charleville and Amelia Gregory, Banana. (Photo: Brad Cooper).

Panelists at the Outback Tourism launch, from left: Richmond Shire Mayor John Wharton, Alan Smith, Longreach, Barb Mason, Cunnamulla, Graham Reid, Charleville and Amelia Gregory, Banana. (Photo: Brad Cooper).

Remote Queensland is about to get a lot more crowded as holidaymakers from within the state look to explore their own rural back yard in unprecedented numbers.

That was the strong expectation aired at the season launch of Outback Tourism in Brisbane on Monday night, as state and local government officials, tourism operators, airline executives and travel agents met for a mini-expo and panel discussion to showcase the year ahead.

Based on demand that began to surge late last year after intra-state travel restrictions were dismantled and forward-bookings this year ahead of the season start in April, exhibitors told InQueensland of their confidence in business roaring back to “full throttle” after a disrupted 2020.

The numbers are so strong that Longreach tour operator Alan Smith, director of Outback Aussie Tours, will run his peak season from March 1 to December 17, well beyond the normal April to October season, structured to accommodate the cooler months in Queensland’s interior.

“We do have something in outback Queensland called air-conditioning,” he said to guests at the forum.

“And our mornings and evenings are beautiful – it just gets a bit hot after midday, so there’s really no reason why we can’t look to extend the season further, especially when demand is so strong.”

Luxury retreat owner Lyn French, whose family runs the exclusive Gilberton 450 km west of Townsville, said she now has a waitlist of some 20 couples looking for their opportunity to experience the unique outback chalet.

Luxury retreat owner Lyn French, Gilberton.

The holiday destination, which has included movie stars and royals among its guests, can only accommodate one couple at a time, part of its charm, according to its owner.

But the experience doesn’t come cheap. At $800 per person per night, such luxury touches attract a certain type of higher-earning clientele who once may have taken their purchasing overseas.

“We’ve gone from an average of two couples a month to a point where we have an overflow of interest,” she said.

“It’s a terrible thing to say, but in many respects COVID has been our best friend. We now have people eager to see the beauty of our country, with the added assurance they can do so in comfort and style.”

Positive outlook

Roma ecologist and tour operator Meryl Eddie said her business has increased by a third in the last 12 months.

She and her husband Craig established Boobook 20 years ago, providing flora and fauna survey and ecological assessments to capitalise on the coal seam gas exploration boom.

Five years ago, they added ecotours throughout the region for holidaymakers, and business has never been better.

“The gas industry may have given us our start but COVID has propelled us to new heights,” Meryl Edde said.

“When people come out to our region and go exploring, they just can’t believe what they are discovering.

“That makes them tell their friends and family about their experience, so now we have some real momentum with more and more people wanting to share what’s in their own back yard.”

Corey Richards, from the Eromanga Natural Museum, an hour west of Quilpie, reckons he has one of the state’s best kept hidden treasures.

The town that claims to be further from the ocean than any other location in Australia, is home to Cooper, the fossilised dinosaur classified as a Titanosaur, regarded as the third biggest in the world.

Thought to have spanned 30 metres in length and weighing between 30-40 tonnes, the massive animal’s bone fragments were discovered on the outskirts of the remote community in 2007.

One of those bones, a toe bone, weighing about 8 kg and aged at about 95 million years old, was brought to the tourism launch event on Monday night.

A replica of Cooper is on display at the Eromanga Natural History Museum, which will see the opening of a new $6.6 million centre next month.

At nearby Quilpie, the council’s tourism and economic development manager Karen Grimm believes her community also harbours some hidden gems worth spruiking.

Eromanga’s Corey Richards and Quilpie’s Karen Grimm, with Cooper the region’s dinosaur drawcard.

Last year they had plenty of travellers in the higher income brackets come through town, who would normally have been overseas if not for COVID.

“You’d think it would be hard to impress that kind of crowd, but we directed them to our local Catholic church, which has a fully opal encrusted altar, the only one of its type in the world,” she said.

The Mount Isa Rodeo is also roaring back into life after COVID forced its cancellation last year for the first time since its inaugural fixture in 1959.

In 2019, the southern hemisphere’s richest rodeo brought 39,000 people through the gates over three days.

With big gaps in the rodeo calendar last year, fans of the sport will be needing their fix in even bigger numbers when the bucking starts on the second weekend of August, according to the event’s Krista Hauritz.

Rodeo queen Tamara Evans with Mount Isa Rodeo’s Krista Hauritz.

“It’s a legendary event and is on plenty of people’s bucket lists,” Hauritz said.

“With some of those overseas bucket list destinations out of the equation for the time being, that leaves the Mount Isa Rodeo higher on the list of ‘must do’ experiences.

“At any rate, we like to think of Mount Isa as the Paris of the Outback.”

Before Mount Isa revives in August, race enthusiasts can warm up at Boulia for the annual camel races from July 16-18.

The population of Boulia is about 300, but swells to more than 1800 people when the event, is in full swing.

Promoter Monique Krause said that with a $40,000 purse and a field of contenders from across Australia, Boulia is regarded as the “Melbourne Cup of camel races”.

“It’s been going for 24 years and has grown to be the richest and most prestigious, with endorsement from Racing Queensland,” she said.

Transport links driving growth

Alliance Airlines’ national charter sales manager, Alex Ananian-Cooper told travel agents during the night’s panel discussion that Alliance was catering for tour packages, to enable quick tours to select locations utilising the regional air network.

He said flights out of Cairns to locations such as Longreach were taking groups of between 40-100 on short tours for as little as two or three days.

Qantas Founders Museum CEO Tony Martin said transport links around rural Queensland, whether by air, road or rail, were so good that it was no longer proving a deterrent to long distance travel.

“There may be some areas where you need a four-wheel drive, but you don’t need to take weeks out of your calendar and a fully-kitted out high clearance vehicle to do an Outback holiday,” he said.

“We have accessible regional airports across the state and good, sealed roads suitable for a Toyota Corolla.”

Richmond Shire Mayor John Wharton said improved road networks had played a major part in getting more people out into the bush.

“If you’ve got poor roads, people won’t be interested in driving them,” he said.

“You have to give credit where credit is due and say the state and federal governments, through strong advocacy from local governments, have done a great job in bringing our road network up to a better standard.”












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