Tourism Tropical North Queensland evolved from a grassroots community and business movement to help the region’s slowing economy through the Far North Queensland Promotion Bureau. In 1971 visitor spend was at $50 million with most visitors arriving in Cairns by steamer, rail and caravan. However, the potential to grow tourism was recognised when Hollywood superstar Lee Marvin made a name for Cairns through his regular game fishing trips during the 1970s.
In response to the need for a coordinated and cooperative approach to tourism marketing, the Far North Queensland Development Bureau set up a Board for Tourism and Travel. Professional fundraisers secured $40,000 to $50,000 a year from local authorities and the business community for the first five years, giving the region one of the largest destination marketing budgets in Australia at the time.
In 1978 the Far North Queensland Promotion Bureau was formed to focus on destination marketing and as a result tourism slowly overtook agriculture, forestry and mining as an economic driver for the community. In the seven years from 1974 to 1982 bed spaces increased 150% to 7500 with more than 400 tourism businesses, including $30 million worth of reef boats, and some 30 tour bus options. By 1993 tourism was worth about $120 million a year.
The Cairns International Airport opened in 1984 and international marketing of the destination began in earnest. Just two years later significant investment in tourism infrastructure began with Japanese investors leading the way by building hotels and expanding the reef fleet.
Tourism was booming until the pilot’s dispute in the summer of 1989 and 1990 cut the supply of visitors to Cairns, demonstrating just how dependent the region was on tourism and aviation. TTNQ worked on coordinated campaigns to strategically rebuild markets and at the time was acknowledged as one of the most active, aggressive and effective tourism promotional bodies in the country. Tropical North Queensland experienced the strongest growth and recovery of any destination in Australia.
In the 1990s, the Cairns Region Tourism Strategy, which drew on the resources of more than 90 agencies, set a blueprint for the region to develop a diversified tourism product and ensure sustainable use of its natural and cultural assets in the hope of future-proofing the industry.
With construction starting on the Cairns Convention Centre in 1992, attention turned to the meetings and incentives market. The region’s fortunes turned around in 1993 when its 17% growth in visitor numbers far exceeded the State’s 4% growth. That year the Promotion Bureau had one of the highest levels of membership of any regional tourism organisation in Australia. The following year tourism became the region’s first billion dollar industry.
In 1998 the Bureau began trading as Tourism Tropical North Queensland to reflect the new destination marketing name of Tropical North Queensland and a consumer website was launched as a marketing tool.
Aviation continued to be a challenge with the cancellation of services from Japan in 1998 and the loss of Singapore Airlines and Garuda in 2000. The Cairns Aviation Strategy Team brought TTNQ, the Cairns Port Authority (which operated the airport at the time) and Tourism Queensland together to lobby for international and domestic aviation services. In 2001 Ansett collapsed resulting in a 40% loss of domestic capacity to Cairns.
Devastating cyclones in 2006 and 2011 compounded by the Global Financial Crisis brought a tourism downturn that filtered throughout the region’s economy. Strengthening and diversifying the region’s tourism industry and destination appeal was an essential part of the 2011-2031 Tropical North Queensland Regional Economic Plan. Increasing sports and events tourism, eco and nature-based tourism, and education tourism were part of the growth strategy.
Since then sports and events tourism has helped spread visitation into traditional shoulder seasons and Tropical North Queensland is now known internationally as a sports destination thanks to events like Ironman Asia-Pacific and the UCI World Mountain Bike Championships. In 2018 education tourism is supporting 300 jobs in Cairns and work has started on the Wangetti Trail, a walking and mountain biking trail to be marketed as one of the top 10 trails in Australia.
With aviation access critical to the region’s future prosperity, TTNQ successfully lobbied the Queensland Government to establish an aviation attraction fund which resulted in direct flights from China to Cairns beginning in 2017. Direct flights to Asian destinations have paved the way for the region’s agricultural sector to export produce, further strengthening the Tropical North Queensland economy.
TTNQ was also instrumental in convincing the Ghassan Aboud Group to begin its foray into Australian hotel development in Cairns with robust forecasting showing the time was right for new tourism infrastructure. In 2018 the Group’s Crystalbrook Collection is transforming the Cairns skyline with a $500 million investment in three new international hotels.
After consulting members and industry partners, the TTNQ Board embarked on a strategic review which resulted in the 2018-2020 Strategic Direction. This plan is being implemented by the TTNQ team to deliver $3.5 billion expenditure in 2020 and lead the way forward to the vision of becoming one of the world’s most inspiring nature based destinations.
TTNQ secured sustainable domestic funding through a $16.5 million five-year funding agreement with Cairns Regional Council.
In 2020 and 2021, the region’s tourism industry faced a significant blow with the COVID-19 pandemic, surpassing all natural disasters. During lockdown, TTNQ’s advocacy focused on lobbying state and federal politicians and securing over $140M in additional funding for marketing, event, and operator support.
TTNQ was the only destination in Australia to receive Federal funding for international recovery with $15 million allocated over the next two/three years. While announcing the funding for TTNQ, Prime Minister Scott Morrison paid us a very powerful compliment. He said no part of the Australian tourism industry had been more successful in developing international markets and nurturing those relationships than Tropical North Queensland. When our region is doing well, the Australian tourism industry is doing well.
2021 was a record year for domestic expenditure, despite Queensland borders being closed to our key southern markets for much of the year.
TTNQ’s intensive work during the pandemic to grow our market share of domestic visitation resulted in a record $4.4 billion expenditure and 2.5 million visitors in 2022. This record visitor spend is close to $1 billion more than the 2019 total visitor spend and four years ahead of the 2021 recovery forecasts.
Innovation is essential, and in 2022 TTNQ became the first Regional Tourism Organisation to launch a Sustainable Travel Hub and an Accessibility Hub.
The TTNQ Board set a new 2023-2025 Strategic Direction, aiming to increase the value of the visitor economy in the region to $5B, four years ahead of 2021 forecasts. In May 2023, we launched the Tropical North Queensland First Nations Tourism Action Plan, the first for any region in Australia.