Time to put food on tourist menu


World travellers are a sophisticated lot, but don’t tell Tourism Australia. Its marketing executives insist on selling a good ol’ ocker cringe.

Not content with its failed and fatuous promotion “So where the bloody hell are you?”, which was designed for the vast millions of bogans who jet around the globe, the Federal Government’s tourism marketing bureaucracy is developing a campaign to coincide with an outback epic.

A love story set against the harsh aridity of station life, Australia the movie will see Nic Kidman and Hugh Jackman grappling in grime. Hugh will probably crack his whip.

We who live in this fortunate place got over this errant image of our country decades ago. But not Tourism Australia, or whatever its predecessors were called – only the name changes.

Who among us shrivels at the memory of Paul Hogan’s prawn on the barbie? Who gulps at Lara Bingle’s dumb rhetoric? All of us.

Sure, Tourism Australia can expect a spike in numbers after the film and the campaign appear.

But it will be momentary.

It won’t tell the truth about our country, and it won’t result in a sustained – let alone increased – interest in us and where we live. Because it’s false. And stupid.

None of Tourism Australia’s recent marketing has worked, judging by the figures. April arrivals to our shores were down 3 per cent compared with last year.

Over the whole year to the end of April, they were up only 1 per cent on the previous period despite increased world prosperity.

Add a stronger dollar this year, a jump in airfares and higher living costs and you’d bet on the figures dipping dramatically.

The bureaucrats and their masters continue to neglect our single tourism trump. Melbourne is the world’s best city in which to eat out. It’s that simple.

Sydney has several very fine restaurants, even if it lacks the mid-level brasseries that flourish in Batman’s village. And both – especially Melbourne – provide value for money Europeans can only dream about.

We’ve been the best for about 20 years. During that time, I made two trips to Sydney to try to convince Tourism Australia to play this trump.

I even told them which hand to use and how to do it.

Both times, I was patted on the head, told “There, there!” by some marketing whiz – usually a bald bloke with bristle beneath his lower lip and florid spectacle frames – and shown the door. They thought I was mad.

Eating out was not a “driver” of overseas tourists, they explained. But couldn’t it be? They were too lazy to find out. (Victoria has at least acknowledged gastronomy’s importance by setting up a Food and Wine Tourism Council, on which I sit.)

They were bureaucrats, of course – caution and unoriginality kept them their jobs.

They pushed only a single, simplistic message that surveys told them their clients believed: Australians are clods in a paddock.

As we know, our nation is one of the most urbanised in the world. Increasingly so. It’s also one of the most sophisticated. And for your money you eat better nowhere else.

I visit Europe at least once a year. For two weeks in Italy last year the best food I ate was cooked by my mate, our wives or me. One bistro’s lasagne saved the Boot’s massively overrated reputation.

In France it’s the same. Try to find a reasonably priced restaurant in Paris that matches any of Melbourne’s top 30. Have you got several weeks?

Visit regional France or the over-loved Tuscany. I could tell you what’s on every menu and all the dishes will be cooked indifferently.

In London in February last year I ate a fairly good entree and main course at the renowned St John Bread & Wine. I drank a glass of dodgy French white and my bill was over $80. I would have scored it perhaps 13 here.

By contrast, three-quarters of my past 20 reviews have scored 14 or more. Among them were places serving house-made black pud with a fried duck egg, caramelised apple and a strap of smoked bacon; slow-roasted beef cheeks on a chickpea slurry; king prawns in brown butter with baby capers and sweet mustard-fruit bits; and slow-roasted salmon with a beetroot jelly and light horseradish cream.

I defy you to find any offering as interesting anywhere in Europe or on the west coast of the US.

If you do, compare its price with what you pay here.

Our truly remarkable ascension from gastro-zeroes to heroes in a generation is a great story that needs to be told by those who know it to a posse of the world’s best food journalists.

Specialist operators need to organise gourmet tours. And our superiority needs to be trumpeted in commercials and campaigns.

But don’t tell Tourism Australia. They’ll just light the (bottled gas) barbie and reach for another raw prawn.