Changing perceptions about Tasmania’s West Coast

In the era of the experience or visitor economy, place branding – often referred to as destination marketing or management – has become a big deal. In major cities around the world, messages spruiking holiday deals for destinations jostle for attention at every turn. But how many of those destinations look the same? One palm-fringed tropical beach looks very much like another.

In recent years, Tasmania has become a leader in using place branding to differentiate its offer for visitors from those of other, arguably comparable, destinations, with its Go Behind the Scenery program, which has been in place in various evolving forms for about six years.

Several iterations of the campaign, which focuses on Tasmania’s idiosyncrasies and rustic charm through personal stories from its inhabitants, has resulted in a boom in tourism to the state – up 21% for the year to June 2018 – at a time when some other Australian states’ visitor numbers are in reverse.

International visitors and spend by state, year ending June, 2018. Source: Tourism Research Australia
International visitors and spend by state, year ending June, 2018. Source: Tourism Research Australia

Tasmania is not a big place – similar in size to Scotland or Ireland – so the diversity of landscapes and experiences comes as a surprise to many. With the state as a whole leading in the place-branding push, regions within Tasmania are now focused on highlighting their unique appeals to differentiate themselves, not just from other regions of the island, but from competitive destinations interstate and overseas.

Road trips, history and heritage, nature and food and wine are a given across the island, but there is one corner of the state that has – until now – missed out on the current growth in visitor numbers.

Strahan, on the West Coast at Macquarie Harbour, enjoyed a visitor boom during the post-Franklin River blockade years of the 1990s when Strahan Village was built and attracted tourists from around the country. I recall my first visit to the town in about 1993. I was expecting to be rubbing shoulders in the pub with local fishermen, but found instead a bistro full of urbane South Australians debating the relative merits of Tasmania’s premium wines.

My friend Subi picutured outside of cottages repurposed as visitor accommodation in Strahan - circa 1993
My friend Subi picutured outside of cottages repurposed as visitor accommodation in Strahan – circa 1993

However the rest of the West – which features mining towns Queenstown, Rosebery and Zeehan, whose fortunes have historically shared the roller-coaster ride of global commodity prices, remained off the beaten track. While the region is one of the most tourism-dependent regions in Australia, Tasmanian Visitor Survey statistics show that in recent years visitation to the West Coast has remained flat while other regions have boomed.

Much work has been done to encourage the region to reconsider its nature as a mining area and broaden its self image to include tourism and other industries including the arts. The Unconformity (formerly the Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival) has been a catalyst.

The region offers a range of visitor activities that many regions would envy. Cruising on the Gordon River through the South West World Heritage area is long established, and the West Coast Wilderness Railway celebrates the make-a-way-or-find-a-way grit and ingenuity of mining and industrialisation in the region. A growing band of innovative tourism operators is adding to the mix.

For Tasmania, the West Coast is a long way – around half a day’s drive – from the major population centres of Hobart and Launceston, so it’s not a day trip. Convincing visitors to come for a few days is a challenge faced by all wishing to grow the region. It is a key element of my own work, marketing the West Coast Wilderness Railway, where we are currently running a campaign called Tracks to Adventure, aligning the railway with a variety of adventure-based activities in the area.

A place branding project is working to differentiate the rugged West Coast from the rest of Tasmania, and particularly from the rich agricultural North West Coast, with which it shares a regional tourism organisation. Design and strategy agency For the People ran an energetic and thorough program of community and industry consultations and has distilled the wild, remote and industrial essence of the region into a set of brand assets and communication tools that are exciting the local industry.

The suite of branding assets provides tools that reflect a rugged, no-nonsense yet fun outdoorsy personality that, to my mind, fits well with the region.

Sidetrack - a sample of the West Coast Branding developed by For the People
A sample of the West Coast Branding developed by For the People reflects the area’s personality

Simultaneously the Western Wilds project has adopted the branding and is developing the journey west as Tasmania’s next great road trip, building on the success of the Great Eastern Drive along the East Coast.

Its story stops will encourage travelers to stop at various points along the way to discover stories of the area, ranging from the presence of indigenous peoples through wildlife such as the Tasmanian Tiger, to the various waves of European settlement and development.

The Western Wilds drive journey will get our visitors off the beaten track and make sure more people experience Tasmania’s fascinating and spectacular west.
The Western Wilds drive journey will get our visitors off the beaten track and make sure more people experience Tasmania’s fascinating and spectacular west.

With the likelihood of regular air services between Hobart and Strahan and the announcement of new, bigger, replacements to the Spirit of Tasmania ferries from 2022, it’s an exciting time to be working in tourism on Tasmania’s west coast.

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Further reading