Be ready for the new airport or risk a crash landing
THE clock is ticking for the Sunshine Coast's tourism industry and the key number is 36.
That's 36 months until international flights start using our upgraded airport and Visit Sunshine Coast CEO Simon Latchford says we had better be ready or risk missing out on millions of tourism dollars.
And looking pretty silly.
"Building the airport is one thing - a game-changer - but we are going to look pretty stupid if we have a brand new airport and don't have the infrastructure to back it up," Mr Latchford said.
"Things like five-star accommodation to house international visitors and the transport we need to get them to that accommodation, just to name a couple.
"They are integral components of the overall picture."
While that means 2018 will be a year for some serious forward planning, Mr Latchford said we can't afford to drop the ball on the successful campaigns which saw a record 294,000 international visitors to the region in the 12 months to September - up 8.2 per cent.
He describes that result as "extraordinary", as the national average was about 7 per cent and both Brisbane and the Gold Coast were significantly lower.
"So we smashed some of the big boys, which was exceptional," he said.
"It was nice to be the No.1 tourism growth destination, I think for the first time ever."
Then there was the record 3.4 million domestic arrivals and 12.4 domestic visitor nights, helping tourism contribute $2.06 billion to the Sunshine Coast economy.
And don't forget the new flights from Adelaide, the success of the fledgling food-based tourism and the appointment of tourism staff into Europe and Singapore to help build capacity on international flights into the new airport.
"We really are punching above our weight," Mr Latchford points out.
He cites the convention industry as one key area for the coming year, with new funding from Sunshine Coast Regional Council after a strong 2017.
"We went after four conventions in 2017 and won all four, including the Society of Australian Travel Writers and the Australian Events Awards.
"We went back to council for more funding and they supported us and we now have substantial nationally competitive covention funding - so watch this space in 2018.
"But the convention industry needs five-star accommodation, so we have to focus on ensuring we can offer that."
The larger conventions - say 1500 Amway reps - also need larger venues, which are in the pipeline.
"It doesn't mean that in the meantime we can't compete and win smaller events - continue the good work of 2107 and win, say, four smaller events," Mr Latchford said.
It's the same with cruise ships.
"We don't have a terminal and a lot of other places would have said 'we don't have a terminal, so we can't host cruise ships'.
"Instead we turned it around and host several smaller ships, each one bringing roughly a quarter of a million dollars in gross value to the economy.
"So in 2018 we will continue to go after and win more and more conventions and more and more cruise ships."
So too with the drive market, whch has been the backbone of Sunshine Coast tourism for many years.
Mr Latchford conceded that visitors would be dealing with a "bastard of a road" in the Bruce Hwy for the forseeable future, which meant the focus had to be on making their trips worthwhile.
"The drive industry is what puts dinner on the table and we would be nuts if we took our eyes off it.
"But while a new airport, five-star hotels, conventions and cruise ships are all good and groovy, we have to look for and develop new things and new reasons for people to visit ... food tourism, different types of events, not just sporting events, developing our arts and culture events.
"There are all sorts of things we need to continually develop so people come back, stay longer and spend more money.
"The figures say we are doing the best job in Australia of pouring people down the funnel.
"The next challenge in a tough economic evironment - an environment where it is getting harder and harder for all tourism destinations to be competitive and lift numbers - is to be that much smarter.
"Particularly when we have much bigger tourism operators like Brisbane and the Gold Coast right next door.
"We have to work together, put aside out differences and think outside the box.
"In fact, we have to take away the box, remove the fences and keep doing really cool stuff.
"We have so much going for us and we have to maintain the momentum."