OPINION: Where to from here for Brisbane’s booming tourism

By Mark Olsen, General Manager of Consulting, EarthCheck

Let’s be honest – over the past decade if you’d have asked a traveller why they were in Brisbane, it’s more than likely the answer wouldn’t be because of the leisure offering. But the results – the things that count – are showing that trend is very quickly changing and, more likely, has already changed.

Throughout the past three years, Brisbane has been on a stellar climb of regaining lost market share, particularly in the leisure market. In terms of the national and state goals for 2020, the Australian trend surrounding visitor nights and expenditure surprisingly reached levels that were aimed for, but never really expected. 


The performance in the city, particularly in the visiting friends and relatives market, has been nothing short of amazing. This growth is a result of the shifting perception of what the destination has to offer and looking forward it presents an opportunity to put a laser-like focus on turning the dial on its perceptions as a leisure destination. 

But if Brisbane wants to maintain that growth, the key considerations and opportunities have to be grabbed with both hands. Here’s where Brisbane needs to go.

But first, the events

Brisbane has always been a leader in the event space, particularly in Queensland. And it's been the blockbuster events that have driven visitation. The sounds of Manny Pacquiao taking on Brisbane school teacher Jeff Horn in front of 55,000 fans at Suncorp Stadium is a boxing match the likes of which has never been seen in Brisbane, and potentially Australia. 

Brisbane Global Tens

But it has also been events such as the Brisbane Global Rugby Tens, the cultural experiences such as QPAC’s line-up of shows and the Brisbane Festival, and the food events such as Regional Flavours at South Bank that have continued to drive visitation into Brisbane. And it’s in the positioning of the accommodation and leisure experiences around these and other events that the real opportunity arises to peg Brisbane as the compelling destination it is. 

Why ‘new luxury’ will guide us

A compass point for Brisbane's future in the leisure market and for investors or businesses seeking to leverage the incredible growth is the redefinement of luxury. Because luxury is no longer just comfort, service and quality – those are simply the new norms. New luxury is now about authenticity, space and personalisation. That's the area in which Brisbane is playing, and playing well. 

"New luxury is now about authenticity, space and personalisation. That's the area in which Brisbane is playing, and playing well"
– Mark Olsen 

The city’s quality existing accommodation and its new accommodation offerings are on track – just look at the excitement and opportunity surrounding Queen’s Wharf – and the food and beverage experiences surrounding them are growing in numbers and quality. And then there’s the cultural and event framework building around it – the collective effect of which is helping to not just lift the game, but change it.

Look at it holistically and you have the offering of a New World City, not just the label. Brisbane has moved beyond just comfort, service and quality, into authenticity, localisation, the access to a lifestyle and space, and the ability to personalise the experience. It’s part of the reason why the growth trends are how they are.

Growth by air and by cash registers

The big growth factor is of course air access from key markets, and the numbers have taken off. The increase in flights from China Southern, the direct route to Canada, the increase in flights to and from the US. It has been a rapid increase in international air access, and Brisbane becoming a first port of call for an increasing number of international visitors, that is giving the city its big growth opportunity – a 9.6 per cent year-on-year increase to a record high of 1.2 million international visitors. And holiday visitors have grown at nearly 15 per cent. 

We've always been comfortable and confident in the domestic leisure sector, particularly the domestic events market. Queensland has northern New South Wales coming into Brisbane for those capital city events, particularly the sporting events and the cultural events. But now we're starting to see that with growing air access, the improved quality and availability of accommodation, and the food and beverage offering in Brisbane, that the city is getting a real, impactful and tangible lift.

The other one would be our improvements in retail products, such as Queens Plaza. They're really starting to give Brisbane a retail offer that can hold the attention of our international and interstate visitors. But that needs to be watched closely, with surrounding cities bolstering their retail offerings to pull international visitors up and down the road.

The Asia opportunity and why access drives success

We're already seeing a 30 per cent year-on-year change in China visitation into Brisbane. So the market is already coming to us. But many of them are then dispersing into the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and then using Brisbane as a stopping-off point on their way to Great Barrier Reef and Sydney. 

The opportunity is to create robust, high-quality partnerships throughout the South East Queensland region. Rather than looking at Brisbane in isolation, the city needs to lead the broader South East Queensland offer, to commit the products and experiences, and then fill some gaps. 

Tangalooma Island Resort

We need more quality river experiences with dining – such as the great work done by Riverlife – and more accessibility to nature-based experiences, both the marine stuff like we see in Moreton Bay and Tangalooma as well as the hinterland products. 

For Brisbane, closing the gap for those visitors staying in CBD hotels means being able to access those products and then returning back to their accommodation at night. We've been much more used to sending Brisbane and South East Queensland residents out on short breaks, self-drive breaks. 

The trend over the next five years has to be about closing that gap between the nature product that we have on our doorstep and the accommodation that visitors want to return to for the night-time economy, the hustle and bustle of a New World City. That's where Brisbane has a remarkable opportunity in the next couple of years as the air factor increases with the Brisbane Airport coming on with the second runway by 2020.

From the bay to the hinterland, access is key

The numbers going through key products and the market awareness, particularly in Asia, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and in China are remarkable. What Brisbane needs to be able to do is continue to offer product diversity for those markets. And Moreton Bay, in my mind, is a sleeping giant for Brisbane. But it will all come down to access. 

Access from and near the airport, the marine access from the CBD, these are going to be the turning points over the next few years as we begin to make Moreton Bay as accessible as the Sydney Harbour experience is for those in Sydney.

On the hinterland side, we've seen the Gold Coast hinterland do that really well, with food, with wine and with nature experiences such as the glow worm caves. The opportunity for areas such as the Scenic Rim, Somerset and the Lockyer Valley to bolster similar quality food and wine experiences and nature-based experiences will be paramount. Great things are happening in those regions and visitors need to be able to get to them.

Sunrise at Mt Coot-tha

The zipline proposed for Mt Coot-tha is a turning point in the history of Brisbane, because we haven't really created a new adventure inner-city experience since the introduction of Riverlife. 

With the Story Bridge Adventure Climb, with Riverlife and now with the proposed zipline, we build the story around the outdoor, active city of the future that offers both the lifestyle benefits and tourism experiences that move beyond the classic city experience. Once the operator has come on board, it will be easier to see what direction the private sector in partnership with council take the delivery. 

Story Bridge Climb

The opportunity is really to reposition the idea of a zipline – there are only eight in Australia – and where Mt Coot-tha sits. It won’t be the steepest or the longest, so building in the nature-based experiences and bringing in the Aboriginal story into the experience I think are going to be key to the way that product pans out over the next couple of years. But the real kicker is just how exciting it is to be able to showcase new nature-based tourism experiences accessible from the CBD.

Where to from here

If Brisbane is to excel in the next five years, particularly with the new stock of accommodation coming on board that will deliver the comfort, service and quality the modern traveller expects, it's really got to get fantastic at personalisation, at accessibility to that nature on our doorstep, and finding those authentic or unique experiences that tie into what is authentically and uniquely Brisbane.

Global travellers have so many destinations at their disposal; they don't need just another food experience, they don't need just another accommodation experience. They need to find something that uniquely links to the story of the place, and then is personalised to their needs and their interests. 

Brisbane can tell that story, and tell it well.