Tourism Australia's John O'Sullivan

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A month before it became known that Australia had pressured the United Nations to delete any mention of the country's World Heritage sites in a report on climate change, destinations editor Eric Moya spoke with John O'Sullivan, managing director of Tourism Australia, during the Australian Tourism Exchange (ATE), which drew over 2,300 delegates from around the world.

Q: Representatives from several regional marketing organizations report substantial year-over-year increases in U.S. visitors. What factors have contributed to that?

John O'Sullivan
John O'Sullivan

A: I don't think it's ever been easier to get to Australia from the U.S. Qantas flies directly out of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas. You've got Virgin Australia with two flights daily out of Los Angeles into Brisbane and Sydney. Then, through secondary destinations, you've got the likes of Air New Zealand and Hawaiian Airlines as well as the Middle Eastern carriers, particularly from the East Coast, through Emirates, Etihad and Qatar. Second, there's the fact that the U.S. economy has returned to near-full employment, so Americans are looking at traveling again. We're a very affordable destination at the moment, particularly with the current exchange rate. I don't necessarily think that's been the sole driver of the numbers lifting up, because even when the dollar was at parity we were seeing 3%, 4% increases in visitation out of the U.S., so there's an inherent appeal.

Q: During the ATE, Steven Ciobo, minister for trade and investment, talked about "a very high level of aspiration to visit Australia." What are some challenges you see in getting U.S. travelers in particular to act on those aspirations?

A: We really want to move Americans from saying, "Australia is a bucket-list destination that I need four weeks to do," to saying, "This is a destination I want to go to frequently." From the West Coast of the U.S. you can do the east coast of Australia in a week, if you really want to: You leave L.A. late Friday night, you get into Sydney or Brisbane or Melbourne on Sunday morning. You've then got until Sunday morning Australia time, and you can get back Sunday morning U.S. time.

Q: Virgin Australia has begun rolling out reconfigured 777s, featuring 24 premium-economy seats and other changes. How important is updating air offerings?

A: With products like premium economy, it takes away another barrier: "It's going to take me a week to recover from jet lag." You arrive feeling relatively fresh and well-fed.

Q: How do high-profile tourism advocates such as David Attenborough and Chris Hemsworth play into the core values of Australia's tourism efforts?

A: You can't get a better person to talk about natural beauty and naturalism than Sir David; food, Rene Redzepi's one of the top chefs in the world; from Hemsworth's point of view, yes, he's got a great voice and he's got a profile, but he's also got a real, authentic story about growing up learning to surf in Port Phillip, he's spent some time in indigenous communities. They all bring a different angle, a different authenticity.

The biggest criticism I got was, "You've got the world's sexiest man [2014, People magazine] and you left him out of the ad." Well, he's in the ad, you've just got to shut your eyes and listen. [Editor's note: Hemsworth's voice can be heard in a video produced as part of the "There's Nothing Like Australia" campaign launched this year.] But we didn't want to take away from the beauty of the country.

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