Rock tour report stirs hornet’s nest

p2139-MacDonnells-Panorama

The magnificent West MacDonnells: Central Australia’s beauty spots, how do we get there and what should it cost?

 

By ERWIN CHLANDA

 

We are right and our paying customer is wrong: is that, judging from the reaction to issues we raised last week relating to a tour company, the bizarre business model of our tourist industry?

 

Although it is the potentially the biggest private enterprise industry, the industry has been incapable of halting its long and steep decline, despite operating in one of the world’s most magnificent regions, and getting promotion into which the taxpayer pours $40m a year (Territory-wide).

 

To put this into perspective: Tourism NT gets $174 a year per head of population. The corresponding figure for Queensland is about $15.

 

Jaclyn Thorne, General Manager of Tourism Central Australia (TCA), through which Jeff Burden and his partner had booked, was focussing on shooting the messenger, threatening the Alice Springs News Online with legal action without even picking up the phone.

 

There was no hint in her reply of what her industry body would be doing about a repeat visitor (until now?) from overseas leaving thoroughly disenchanted.

 

Meanwhile Wayoutback’s Deborah Rock stated “our tourism industry does not need Jeff Burden to resuscitate our industry” and demanded we pull the story.

 

Other tourism figures also poured scorn on Mr Burden – see readers’ comments at the bottom of the original report. None of the three writers, all claiming to be working in the tourist industry, provided their full names.

 

“Simon” claims Mr Burden wanted a “free trip to the rock” (nowhere was that stated), and he wanted to pay “backpacker prices and receive 5 star treatment”.

 

In fact Mr Burden took the view it was the other way ’round.

 

“Steve” asserted that I am “either A) out of touch with reality or B) friends with this gentleman”. A: I have never met Mr Burden face to face and had no knowledge of him before doing this story; and B: I’ve covered tourism in Central Australia as a full-time journalist, resident in Alice, since 1974. “Steve” can find hundreds of my tourism stories in the Centralian Advocate and the Alice Springs News, not to mention numerous reports and features for television networks in Australia and overseas.

 

“Steve” and Ms Rock are pointing to the hard work being done by tour guides: Ms Rock says “when the group got up at 5, the guide would have already been up for ages”.

 

This suggests the guide would have a working day of some 16 to 17 hours by the time she clocked off that night, and this included a lot of driving. (Fatigue management here is industry-regulated.) “Steve” suggests if the passengers didn’t give a hand, companies “would have to run two staff per bus”.

 

That may not be such a bad idea: Mr Burden’s bus had 20 passengers. Ms Rock says “a couple” had been upgraded, paying just $395 each, that’s $790.

 

Consequently it is reasonable to assume the remaining 18 paid $695 each, that’s $12,510, a total of $13,300 for three days. Would there be slack for a second guide and driver?

 

“Nick” suggests that the issues raised in our report “logically [belong] on a tour review website. I can’t see how this can even loosely be considered as news”.

 

We are happy to inform “Nick” that consumer affairs issues are very properly concerns for our newspaper (and all news media), especially when they relate to the town’s main private enterprise industry.

 

This is how this saga unfolded: Mr Burden is a friend of Rod Moss, a resident of Alice Springs for several decades, a former teacher, acclaimed painter and in 2011 the winner of the Prime Minister’s award for non-fiction. Mr Moss, who had witnessed more than one negotiation between Mr Burden, Wayoutback and TCA, told us about Mr Burden’s experiences. Mr Moss is a friend.

 

We googled Mr Burden’s background and found several entries about his work at an American university.

 

He and his partner had left for Singapore and we exchanged emails to arrange an interview. I spoke with him on Skype for 26 minutes on Wednesday last week, recording the conversation (with his permission, of course). The interview formed the basis of the report.

 

The next phase of our information gathering was to seek responses from TCA and Wayoutback and offer them the right of reply.

 

In this we usually go well beyond what most other journalists do, namely we send story drafts – to the point reached by our research at the time – so that the people we are dealing with are aware not only of the content, but also the context.

 

We make it clear that this is not an invitation to censor, but to point out any errors and omissions.

 

We incorporated relevant sections of the responses from TCA and Wayoutback to the story.

 

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6 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Stephanie
    Posted August 17, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    It’s not what you have said about this company. It’s what people like you say that affects the whole industry out there.
    You say that tourism in Central Australia is warped? Well everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.
    As a journalist you be careful of yours though. And on top of this if you’ve been writing so many articles that are tourism related. Come and speak to some of the companies, perhaps if you’re nice enough they will show you why they can’t afford two drivers at once.
    It would be great if they could trust me! A lot has changed since you arrived in Alice in the 1970s buddy.
    The first article as well as this one won’t do you any favours. And no I don’t work for Wayoutback. I work for a competitor as well.
    [ED – I did not write that tourism in Central Australia is warped.]

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  2. Tony Meman
    Posted August 15, 2014 at 6:12 am

    This has been going on for years. When I used to work for Territory Discoveries it was the same then. All one big rip off.

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  3. Observer
    Posted August 14, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Keep plugging away at this Erwin, the town needs to swallow the bitter medicine in order to create prosperity for our town.
    I think that the core problem here is the personnel employed in the industry.
    The guide’s absences at every opportunity and running out of fuel suggests that she badly let the tourists and the company down.
    This is not at all unusual here but visit other tourist meccas such as the Daintree River area in Queensland and you will find guides who are passionate about the country and its flora and fauna.
    A tour with them is an education and an experience remembered for all the right reasons.
    Who cares about the cleaning and cooking when you have a great guide who teaches you so much.
    The problem for our tourist industry comes back to the quality of its staff and much improvement is needed.

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  4. Simon Cook
    Posted August 14, 2014 at 9:10 am

    Oh thank you Erwin Chlanda for another wonderful “story”. To start with let me agree with you on one point, yes it was never stated that Jeff Burden wanted a free trip to the Rock it was just the feeling I got but he did go and demand a partial refund.

    Secondly, I never stated that Jeff Burden wanted to pay backpacker prices and receive 5 star treatment, a small misalignment with your cut and paste tool would have brought that into life. My quote was “We get so many passengers that want to pay backpacker prices and receive 5 star treatment and this is very unrealistic”.

    [ED – Thank you for having the courage of providing your full name this time. To make your statement above clear you should have added “Mr Burden wasn’t one of them” but you didn’t and so it is reasonable to assume you were referring to him. Mr Burden contends he paid for five stars and got three. And, as is also relevant to your comment below – we don’t modify direct quotes.]

    I like Nick in the above comment [and] must also state that I do not work for WOB but for a competitor. I do agree with most of the comments from him and the other replies on the original article.

    I must also say it’s just great to see Mr Burden calling the attractions “Ayres Rock” [ED – he called it Ayers Rock] and “The Olgas” something both you as the article writer and he would have known is no longer the correct and cultural names for them.

    So let me look at this article, what a wonderful statement on dollars per population, quote ‘To put this into perspective: Tourism NT gets $174 a year per head of population. The corresponding figure for Queensland is about $15’, let me put this into perspective, the population of Queensland is 4.7mil people while the Northern Territory’s is 242,000 a vast difference there but brilliant journalism for people that don’t look into fact and figures. [ED – All you need to do now is to point out in what way our calculation is incorrect.]

    I am not surprised that Jaclyn Thorne, General Manager of Tourism Central Australia (TCA) looked at legal action due to so many mistruths in the original article. You yourself have done a great job in questioning Mr Burden’s story in this article stating that the guide must be working for 16 to 17 hours, while he continually says they were doing very little. In another article you quote regulation on fatigue management stating “The maximum number of working hours per day is 16. These include at least one half hour break every five hours, when drivers walk around, engage in conversation or relax in some other way.” To some people going for a jog is a way to relax and at other times just get away from what he / she is doing is what is needed to comply with the regulations.

    If pax were rising at 5am then the guide would at the most been up at 4:30am, so there for 8:30pm would be the cut off and I am sure by this time they would have been relaxing around the fire. There also seems to be a big stir on there being other passengers on the trip that were upgraded so there for Mr Burden seems to think he should only have paid the lower price, should all business class pax on a long haul flight be given economy fares if I get upgraded on the plane?

    You made an issue of the 3 original commenters not providing full names, your right but I did post my photos so anyone with in the industry knows who I am, I have corrected the last name issue with this reply. And for my final comment you seem to have done a favour for a friend (Rod Moss) who had a friend (Jeff Burden) that didn’t enjoy a tour, this doesn’t seem like good use of electronic media in this day and age.

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  5. Nick Pincott
    Posted August 13, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks for the follow up on the article Erwin, I hardly think we’ve stirred up a hornets’ nest with just four responses but it is obvious there are concerned parties that take notice when something affects the industry.
    I cannot speak for the other people that commented on the last article, but my reasoning for not providing my full name previously is simply that I would not like my opinions to reflect on my employers, my words are my own.
    Janet Brown, while I do agree with you in principle regarding WHS practices and so forth, you must consider that there financial limitations to what can be provided depending on the price range of the tour.
    Operators are being squeezed on both ends by rising operational costs and strong consumer demand for lower prices. Sensible operating practices are the best way to keep things safe.
    That’s not to say anything is “skimmed” on, I just mean to say that we structure our tours and set up our facilities as best we can with the resources available to us.
    Adding a second staff member on a bus not only doubles the wage bill, it removes a seat that could otherwise be sold. If all buses were full everyday with a steady stream of travelers coming in and out on budget flights, that might be an option, but that just isn’t the case right now.
    This is why you will tend to find tour companies structuring their fuel breaks and so forth in a way that keeps drivers fresh and also just gives passengers a chance to stretch their legs and enjoy the scenery.
    Coming back to the main point of my previous comment, I still don’t consider this to be a topic worthy of being called news. The article came off as being very one sided and highly defamatory towards the tour company. This could have been, and still should be something that is sorted out by the parties involved and not in the public forum.
    I’d like to state clearly, I do not work for Wayoutback. Anyone who knows my name will recognise that I actually work for a company in direct opposition to them. But I feel the need to add balance to this discussion given the way they have been represented in these articles.
    Just taking a moment to look at the customer feedback they receive on tripadvisor, gives a much clearer picture of the company and what they do. They are ranked #8 out of a total of 26 activities, the majority of their reviews are highly favourable and they just recently received a certificate of excellence from tripadvisor due to their positive reviews.
    While this story may be something that could be considered a consumer affairs piece, I would just appreciate if it was presented in a light where the people of the whole company that work very hard, weren’t slandered on the opinion of just one passenger having a bad experience.

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  6. Janet Brown
    Posted August 13, 2014 at 9:07 am

    All tours should be running two staff on the bus. What if one falls sick or is injured, hours from medical facilities?
    Also, share the up and down time. The tourist industry must obey the WHS principles by insuring safe work place for employees.

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