How to centre community when developing tourism in regional Australia

As a key contributor to the Australian economy, the tourism industry can bring immense value to communities and be a catalyst to development. Madeleine Sawyer from Tourism Midwest Victoria understands the balancing act that needs to take place between visitors and residents to create meaningful experiences for everyone involved. 

“I think more and more we’re able to interact in a deeper way when we travel, and I’d really love to see that continue to evolve,” Madeleine says. The ways in which this can be done vary, “It might be a chef creating some really interesting expressions of local produce. It might be a ceramicist using local clay to be able to tell a story of the land. It might be First Nations people connecting with the different stories of culture and the ways that they have had to adapt as a community.” 

We sat down with Madeleine to discuss how the tourism economy can better centre community needs, stories and future development within regional areas. 

Invest in advancements for the community 

It’s no secret that the tourism industry plays a vital role in the advancements of infrastructure and job opportunities for regional communities.

“(Tourism) can be an impetus for infrastructure investment. It becomes an opportunity for more uses for tracks and trails, or for more people to come through the train station. Being able to justify that need on a greater level encourages more investment. 

“It might mean that there’s more demand for a supermarket within a regional community far out in the middle of nowhere, and now they can receive support because they have visitation to the region – which in turn makes the business more viable to open.” 

Understanding what the residents of a destination are proud to share with their loved ones is often a big part of sustainable growth because, as Madeleine explains, making somewhere a good place to visit starts with it being a good place to live, and vice versa. If these communities are beautiful, culture-rich places to explore, it often translates to increased population growth, which then opens up a world of opportunities in the way of jobs and infrastructure, making it an even better place to visit – the cycle continues! 

“It creates job opportunities, it creates ways for people to have a reliable business and to have a stream of solid income, it creates ways for people to express what it is they love about the region.” 

Keep track of tourism sentiment

While tourism is important for regional communities, it is also easy for it to become a pain point for residents. Increased tourism means busier towns and sometimes this change can be difficult for those who call it home. This is why creating a balance is the key to keeping everyone happy, and Madeleine shares some ways to do just that.

“When there’s too much visitation, we’re going to get frustration with traffic and parking, or not being able to go to the supermarket at the time you want to go. It’s really important that we as destination managers keep that in check as much as we can, and really try and disperse the visitors throughout the region, or throughout times within the seasons.

“There are some regions that track community sentiment or resident sentiment as an indicator of how tourism is being received within the region. I think it’s really important that we do that.” 

Madeleine believes tracking sentiment is beneficial to keeping things in balance as the visitor economy grows. In conjunction with this, she highlights the importance of attracting visitors who contribute to the community. Finding valuable visitors rather than focusing just on the volume can be a great way to increase sentiment. 

“I think often the value of tourism is quite misunderstood by the community, so there’s a lot of work that we need to do as tourism professionals to be able to communicate that, and really allow people to understand the value and benefits that it brings.”

Design with community in mind

Overall, Madeleine is aware that tourism is a ‘people’ industry, and she loves the connections that are created between those working in the industry, tourists and residents. 

“It’s incredible when you visit a place and you can just feel the sense of pride of the community – that civic pride. It’s important for us as destination managers to be able to allow for it to be drawn out and experienced by the travellers coming to our region.”

Madeleine shared a story with us of an oyster farm in North Island, New Zealand called Tio Ohiwa. She explained that the new indigenous owners of this business have been focusing on creating a community hub with a strong commitment to regenerating and educating people about the environment. They have also introduced Aquaculture apprenticeships for locals to build their careers. The tour experience shares this story and encourages people who visit to not only support local business and enjoy some delicious food, but also connect with people and nature in a more meaningful way.

“It’s really important that we continue to make those opportunities for residents to be part of the tourism experience, but also for tourists to be able to connect with one another and the locals that live here. 

“I love to be able to create connections between people who are doing wonderful things within the community, and the visitors who come and interact with them. I see tourism as a gateway to understand and learn more about what makes that community special – whether that’s the history, stories, people, nature or businesses.” 

As industry professionals, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are developing tourism programs in sustainable and culturally conscious ways to benefit the community we seek to represent. From finding opportunities for investment in regional infrastructure to keeping community sentiment and pride top of mind, we can work together to build a better tourism economy for everyone.

To hear more from Madeleine about her career, come along to our Connecting Tourism and Community panel on Wednesday 5 June.