Pandemic setbacks spark creative tourism

The heritage-listed bridge over the cascades and swimming pools at Little Crystal Creek near Townsville. Picture: Michael Turtle

The heritage-listed bridge over the cascades and swimming pools at Little Crystal Creek near Townsville. Picture: Michael Turtle

The two-way radio I have in the car with me bursts to life and a voice comes through.

"So, we've gone from pineapple country to sugarcane country," the voice says. "You can see sugarcane on your left and your right. It takes six to ten months to grow and it's harvested between June and December."

I'm on the Bruce Highway near Townsville, heading towards the rainforest of Paluma Range National Park, on a tour of the region. But it's not like any tour I've been on before. COVID-19 has forced small companies like this one - North Queensland Tours - to come up with innovative approaches to tourism and this is one of the best examples I've seen.

It's called a 'tag-along tour'. The woman speaking to me on the two-way radio is Alicia Masters, who is in a car ahead with her husband Josh. We're travelling in a convoy with six cars in total and each has a radio, listening to the commentary along the way and able to ask questions.

Alicia and Josh Masters, who created a new tag-along tour in North Queensland.

Alicia and Josh Masters, who created a new tag-along tour in North Queensland.

Before the pandemic, Alicia and Josh used a minibus to take people out on tours from Townsville. When tourism restarted recently, that wasn't practical with the restrictions. Rather than not run tours or take them with limited numbers, they came up with this idea. It's a perfect solution where everyone can stay in their own car during the drive and socially-distance at all the stops.

"If you've got a will, you'll make it happen," Alicia tells me. "There was no way we were going to stop and turn around."

Speaking of not turning around, today's tag-along tour takes us on a loop through some of the most spectacular landscapes north of Townsville. The first stop is Little Crystal Creek, a series of gentle waterfalls that flow into natural swimming pools and under a heritage-listed stone arch bridge. After that, we visit viewpoints and sites with a more outback feel, driving between them along dramatic bush dirt roads. The final stop is at Wallaman Falls which, at a striking 268 metres, is the highest permanent single drop waterfall in Australia.

Wallaman Falls near Townsville.

Wallaman Falls near Townsville.

Most of the cars have families in them (with kids who announce with typical hyperbole that this is "the best day of my life") and, because the pricing is per car, not person, it makes it affordable for families. For everyone, there's something comfortable about having your own vehicle, but adventurous enough when on some of the 4WD tracks. Alicia tells me they've realised that the tag-along tours will be popular regardless of travel restrictions and they're now here to stay - for tourists and locals.

"It definitely has changed the places we go and the things we talk about because we're more focused on making sure locals understand what natural beauty we have on our doorstep."

I've been back on the road doing trips within Australia for the past couple of months and it's been inspiring to see some of the ways the tourism industry has adapted since the pandemic. Businesses, for instance, that have devised simple but clever ideas to be able to keep offering their experiences - such as Balloon Joy Flights in Canowindra which has limited space in the hot-air balloon basket to socially distance, so requests everyone face outwards the whole time (where you're going to be wanting to look anyway).

Passengers on Balloon Joy Flights in Canowindra are asked to face outwards to reduce the risk of coronavirus.

Passengers on Balloon Joy Flights in Canowindra are asked to face outwards to reduce the risk of coronavirus.

I've been to quite a few small businesses that have removed as much contact as possible - restaurants where you view the menu on your phone and order with an app; accommodation providers that email you instructions on how to use a keypad or lock box to get into your room. These small changes make travelling safer and build confidence in the industry.

And then there are the events which had to be cancelled but managed to create new experiences with a hybrid of virtual and in-person offerings. Like the NSW Southern Highlands that turned its annual pie festival into an event called Pie-solation with tastings and cooking lessons done by video, but with local shops offering a Pie Trail where you could buy different types. (You may recall that I ate far too many when I visited to see the idea for myself.)

 Bakeries and cafes in the Southern Highlands that are part of the Pie Trail took part in the Pie-solation event.

Bakeries and cafes in the Southern Highlands that are part of the Pie Trail took part in the Pie-solation event.

In Canberra, the Ovolo Nishi came up with an idea to use empty hotel rooms to offer private dining experiences from its Monster Kitchen & Bar (for a bit extra, you could then stay the night in the room). The hotel stopped the 'Restaurant in Room' initiative when the main dining area became busier again - but it was so popular, it will start again next weekend. The idea has also been expanded to include the Ovolo Woolloomooloo in Sydney and its plant-based restaurant Alibi.

The Restaurant in Room private dining at Ovolo Woolloomooloo in Sydney. Picture: Ovolo Group

The Restaurant in Room private dining at Ovolo Woolloomooloo in Sydney. Picture: Ovolo Group

"We want to keep the wheels turning for staff, friends and colleagues in the industry," says Ovolo's group food and beverage director Vince Lombino. "It's a time to adapt and evolve."

It's the evolution that I find so fascinating because, by being forced to come up with new ideas, local tourism operators have actually discovered ingenuities that will probably survive beyond all the travel restrictions. A romantic dinner in a hotel room, or using your own car to drive your family on a tour - these are special travel experiences that are showing a small silver lining in this incredibly tough environment.

Michael Turtle was supported by Tourism and Events Queensland. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website.