7 July 2021

Tourism body calls for major upgrades of Canberra's 'neglected' icons

| Damien Larkins
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Hot air balloons float around Telstra Tower

Hot air balloons float around Telstra Tower. Photo: Damien Larkins.

Some of Canberra’s iconic tourism drawcards are being neglected and need some love, attention and investment in technology, the city’s peak tourism body says.

The city is renowned for its tourism icons – from Telstra Tower to cultural institutions and natural beauty that reflects the bush capital name – and before the COVID-19 pandemic, over 6.13 million tourists a year visited the ACT region, pumping about $2.5 billion into the economy.

But the city’s peak tourism body, the Canberra Region Tourism Leaders Forum, says some of our most recognisable icons need a makeover.

READ ALSO How ACT’s tourism industry is getting back in the game

“There are some which could do with a bit of love and attention,” says Forum chair David Marshall.

“We have to be at the forefront of providing people the experience [tourists] expect when they visit the nation’s capital.”

While he’s still a fan of most of the city’s attractions, there are a few in his sights.

Telstra Tower

Opened in 1980, Telstra Tower (also known as Black Mountain Tower) fast became an icon of the Canberra skyline.

It features in artworks, promotional material and countless holiday photos as an instantly recognisable Canberra landmark, but Mr Marshall says it hasn’t been properly maintained.

“In the 40 years that it’s been in existence, I don’t think very much has been spent on refurbishment,” he says.

“It’s in a sad state of neglect. It needs several million dollars injected from Telstra or from other sectors in order to bring it back to what it should be as a quality attraction in 2021.”

He says tourists expect it will be on par with the quality of other world-renowned towers such as Sydney Tower.

“When visitors arrive, they’re bitterly disappointed at the state of disrepair and the fact that the experience is well below their expectation.”

Tidbinbilla Deep Space Tracking Station

The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex

Canberra’s Deep Space Communication Complex is still active in NASA space missions. Photo: Alex Cherney (CSIRO).

Tidbinbilla was officially opened in 1965 and is the only NASA tracking station still operating in Australia today.

It’s supported NASA’s first successful flyby of Mars, Apollo moon missions and, more recently, played a role in the Perseverance Mars mission.

Mr Marshall says it’s a great facility but may be falling behind what modern tourists want.

“When you compare it with Siding Springs [Observatory near Coonabarabran] and others, you find that perhaps there could be some money spent to upgrade it,” he says.

“It’s an outstanding facility; it just needs to be brought up to what people would expect in 2021.”

Red Hill Lookout

Red Hill Lookout

The restaurant at Red Hill Lookout has recently changed hands. Photo: LJ Hooker.

Canberra’s lookouts are another point of interest for tourists as part of their capital experience.

Many people will venture up Black Mountain, Mount Ainslie or Red Hill to take in the city. While the views are spectacular, Mr Marshal says Red Hill lookout needs a fair bit of work.

“It’s been really underdone,” he says.

“It’s in a fabulous place. The views are quite spectacular from there … but it does need attention.”

The iconic dodecagon restaurant on Red Hill Lookout went to market in May, and Mr Marshall is eager to see what the new owners will do.

The Australian War Memorial

The Australian War Memorial

The Australian War Memorial is undergoing an expansion. Photo: Supplied.

While Mr Marshall welcomes the $500 million investment in the controversial Australian War Memorial expansion, he hopes it considers all future tourism needs.

He says museums of all stripes need to rethink what they’re offering.

“Attractions now need to be looking 10 to 15 years ahead and to evolve and attract younger people,” he says.

“[They] want different experiences to what people in their 50s and 60s might have experienced in the past. It’s going to be challenging.”

He says technology will play a huge role in providing those experiences.

“Younger people will be expecting that there will be considerable technology and advancement in displays which are currently static.

“[Displays] can be brought to life through a lot of innovative technological advances,” he advised.

National Botanic Gardens and National Arboretum

Crowd at the Arboretum

The Arboretum and National Botanic Gardens are still growing and attracting visitors. Photo: Genevieve Jacobs.

While there are a few attractions Mr Marshall wants to change, he’s praised the National Botanic Gardens and National Arboretum as models of growth.

He says the Botanic Gardens’ new seed bank and conservatory will enhance the visitor experience and commends the ACT’s continual investment in the Arboretum.

“We’ve got some outstanding attractions and the experience visitors have in the nation’s capital is just fantastic,” he said.

“But we look at some of those other attractions, and it would be good if there was some investment to bring those up to the standards required in a very competitive tourism market in Australia.”

READ ALSO Canberrans told to reconsider interstate travel

As restrictions ease, tourism will begin to return – both national and international.

Mr Marshall suggests maybe a big new attraction may be the shot in the arm our tourism industry needs to help recover.

“It would be great for the commonwealth to announce a new national institution,” he says.

“It took 15 years from the announcement to the opening of the National Museum of Australia, which shows the time lag it takes.”

“We’ve got nothing new on the horizon at this stage for Canberra.

“But saying that the attractions are still world quality.”

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Not even a third order issue. If the ACT government is unable to produce/provide affordable land/housing for ACT residents and workers, then it should not stoke demand for short term accommodation, nor plan further expenditure at the ‘suggestion’ of business lobby groups to be funded by ACT rate payers and renters.

Telstra tower is like taking a trip to the 80s. Nothing much has changed at the tower since. I’m surprised that when you pay for a trip to the top you’re not handed back paper notes.

Canberra has a lot to offer for tourism. However, it does not put enough funding into tourism or in promoting it. For instance, many tourist attractions are not accessible by public transport.

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