Barcaldine wool grower David Counsell calls them the “rivers of gold” – the holidaymakers and perennial travellers who seek outback adventure and chase the northern sun with a caravan in tow.
Four years ago, the fourth-generation sheep producer would watch these golden rivers flow past his property’s front gate facing the Landsborough Highway.
He’d hear them babbling in the supermarkets and petrol stations in town, het-up and grumbling about cramped conditions at caravan parks, sharing amenities with strangers of varying hygiene habits and realising that after endless hours on the road they really hadn’t gotten away with ‘getting away from it all’ at all.
And like countless others before him who’ve had a notion to begin a new business venture, Counsell started with the simple observation that “there had to be a better way”.
The “better way” he discovered was sitting in his very big, 16,000 hectare back yard – a block of dirt big enough to host up to 10 caravans at a time, and locate the guests at least four kilometres apart surrounded by natural hot springs and some 10,000 Merino sheep when fully stocked.
Most of the time, the guests are lucky to see each other, and their host, for that matter. What they are looking for is an experience that only a sprawling sheep station like Dunblane, some 600 kilometres due west of Rockhampton, can offer.
“When it comes to rural properties ours isn’t what you’d call picturesque – it’s a big, flat, pretty featureless kind of a place that has a few creeks that are only full when the big rains come,” Counsell said.
“I’m probably under-selling it, but what it does have is enormous open space, massive open sky with amazing sunsets and millions of stars at night and peace and quiet – and that’s what our visitors like.
“It has some comforts like hot showers, a long drop toilet, some firewood and some tables and chairs and power when I can get it to them, but otherwise that’s it – a completely authentic, rustic experience.”
When Counsell and his wife Genevieve launched their tourism venture four years ago, they did so with the help of an Australian created app called Youcamp, an automated booking system that operates similar to Airbnb but caters specifically for people seeking outdoor stays.
For busy primary producers like Counsell, it meant such a system would handle all the bookings, payments and other administration. All he does is ensure the campsite areas remain clean and he’ll send a text to his guests on arrival to ensure they don’t get lost.
In 2020, Youcamp was acquired by the San Francisco based Hipcamp, offering a similar operating system but exposing ‘exotic’ destinations like Dunblane to a massive new market across the Pacific.
Counsell said his primary market was still the interstate grey nomads and middle-aged couples with older children – “the teacher from Brisbane or the train driver from Perth” – but expects the overseas portion of his customer base will grow.
Hipcamp’s communications manager Lydia Davey Crosby, speaking to InQueensland from the US, said she agreed with Counsell’s forecast.
“Looking into 2023, Hipcamp is already seeing an 87 per cent year on year lift in US travellers heading to Queensland,” she said.
“The state offers what many Americans think of as the quintessential Australian experience: a year-round warm climate, the Great Barrier Reef, easy access to the bush, and of course the Daintree Rainforest.
“When I booked a trip to Australia several years ago, I headed straight for Queensland and spent an incredible couple of weeks exploring Cairns, the rainforest, and the incredible coast and mountains – all the while enjoying friendly Aussie hospitality.”
The Hipcamp figures align with broader trends, with new data from Tourism and Events Queensland released last month revealing we welcomed 39,000 American visitors to Queensland for the year ending September 30, 2022 – up from just 1000 US visitors the year prior amid Covid disruptions.
According to Google analytic data, there were 300,000 searches from the US for flights to Australia in January alone. This is up 22 per cent compared to pre-Covid and makes the US the second largest source of searches for flights to Australia after the UK.
While the pandemic may have hit many Queensland tourism operators hard, and will continue to do so this year according to Queensland Tourism Industry Council CEO Brett Fraser, who predicts outbound travellers from Australia will far outstrip those coming in, lockdowns, social distancing and enforced isolation may still harbour one of those ‘Covid silver linings’ longer term.
“Last year we surveyed 20,000 American campers and were surprised to discover that their top reason for getting outside was a mental health refresh – they ranked mental health benefits above having fun or even spending time with friends and family,” Davey Crosby said.
“That trend appears to carry over into the types of stays US travellers book in Queensland – countryside getaways that promise a peaceful slice of Australian paradise.”
Those insights will be welcome news as the industry prepares to launch the 2023 Outback tourism season in Brisbane on March 8 and Virgin Australia starts direct flights from Tokyo to Cairns, following United Airlines’ commencement of direct flights between San Francisco and Brisbane late last year.
Brisbane’s growing world status as the host of the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games is already driving some of the interest towards our shores, but mostly it’s still the weather, Davey Crosby said.
“We’re currently seeing the bulk of our US bookings centred around the summer months, as Americans look to escape record-setting cold weather and storms in the US for Queensland’s sunnier skies and warmer weather,” she said.
“Hipcamp’s global community of outdoor enthusiasts is more than seven million strong, and word of mouth – often via social media – is a top way campers discover incredible Queensland stays.”
And when they arrive here, what are US travellers looking for?
“They’re largely interested in restful rural stays within easy driving distance of the coast and major cities,” Davey Crosby said.
“Eco-friendly agritourism is booming in Australia, and for Americans it represents an opportunity to invest in sustainable travel and experience the country in a more authentic way.
“We see folks booking stays close to cities, but far enough away that they can enjoy a quiet retreat at the end of the day.”
If that’s the winning criteria then Leah and Callan Groth are sitting in the sweet spot at Hidden Camp Pie Creek, eight minutes south of Gympie, and just over two hours’ drive from Brisbane and within easy reach of the Sunshine Coast and its lush hinterland.
Being closer to the higher population centres of south east Queensland, they run their agritourism business on a block just under three hectares, a fraction of the size of David Counsell’s enterprise in Barcaldine, but offering a more activities-based experience for groups and couples with young children to keep busy.
“We have rope swings, a zip-line, kayaks on the dam you can paddle around in, ducks, chickens and turkeys and animal feeding and a full camp kitchen,” Leah Groth said.
“And on the school holidays we do a lot of kids activities – I have five myself so if I’m going to do it for five I may as well do it for 20 – and if we have enough people here, we’ll also bring in food trucks.”
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Having started their business only 18 months ago, originally catering for friends and family, the Groths are regularly booked solid weeks in advance with an ideal capacity of about 70 people to allow for space and comfort.
“The growth has been unbelievable. We’ve gone from one or two likes on Facebook to more than 14,000 and growing and now the plan is to keep improving and upgrading our facilities,” Leah Groth said.
The surge of interest in farm stays comes three years after the Queensland Farmers Federation identified agritourism as a key diversification revenue stream for traditional farm businesses.
In recognition of the growing industry’s potential, QFF launched a Queensland Agritourism Roadmap in conjunction with the Queensland Government establishing a $2 million fund to help farmers upgrade their properties to enter the tourism industry.
The first round of the government’s grants program was oversubscribed, according to QFF CEO Jo Sheppard, who said it proved the value many Queensland farmers were placing on the opportunity of agritourism as a business diversification option.
“Agritourism is an important growth industry for Queensland’s economy, particularly in regional and rural areas over the next decade and will be worth an estimated $4.5 billion by 2030,” she said.
“With the Olympic opportunity on the horizon, now is the time to invest in the future of this exciting sector.”