Beware the magical promises of major event tourism

NOT GOOD BUSINESS: Like the Newcastle 500, the Commonwealth Games did not deliver the predicted financial boost to local businesses, the author says.
NOT GOOD BUSINESS: Like the Newcastle 500, the Commonwealth Games did not deliver the predicted financial boost to local businesses, the author says.

Where are all the people?  cried Gold Coast citizens as their business district lay largely empty during the Commonwealth Games mega event. “Deserted streets, empty cafes and angry taxi drivers as local businesses battle unexpected downturn” was the Guardian's headline on a story covering the event. Novocastrians living near the CBD will recognise this comment, reflecting as it does the cry from many businesses in the city’s CBD during last year’s Supercars event. They too expected masses of tourists to turn up and spend their money here.  Most were sadly disappointed.

But why should this be unexpected?  Event tourism research shows this is exactly what to expect when major and mega events are imposed directly on a city. It is a well-recognised phenomenon called ‘crowding out’. During major and mega events more people are likely to leave – or don't come into – the city than actually visit for the event and spend money. They go away or stay away because of traffic disruption, noise and loss of amenity.

Novocastrians need to pay close attention to this phenomenon. It is even more stark in Newcastle because of the location of the Supercars circuit on a peninsula that poses even greater problems of access and parking than the Gold Coast event. There is far more temporary infrastructure needed to install and remove each year with a motor racing event. Newcastle has the additional problem that Supercars brings in its own catering services. Spectators can spend their money within the compound.

Major event tourism is not the answer to developing our city's tourism potential. We already had the answer, despite Will Creedon's vision for the Newcastle foreshore from Nobbys to Wickham to be developed as a “global playground”. Before the fateful approach from Destination NSW for Newcastle to host the Supercars series finale, Newcastle City Council strongly supported Newcastle East as a successful heritage tourism destination, so successful it  contributed to the Lonely Planet's recognition of Newcastle in their top 10 cities to visit in 2011. Council's Heritage Policy recognised unsympathetic development as having the potential to undermine ‘the fabric, aesthetics and meaning of heritage places’. 

Heritage precincts are not compatible with motor racing events, as the considerable damage done by vibrations to a number of heritage houses in the precinct demonstrates.  The precinct has also lost some of its rustic ambience as roads have been widened and re-shaped over pebble stones and heritage gutters. Street trees have been permanently removed. The social usage of the place has also been transformed from a much loved passive recreational green space to a popular hooning destination.

Research into developing the tourism potential of a city is wary these days of developments that go overboard in exploiting the tourism potential of a place. The city loses its authenticity, and what attracts tourists in the first place. Global cities such as Venice, Barcelona, Paris, London and New York all recognise the need for responsible tourism that takes sustainability seriously. It's an ethos, not an add-on component. Responsible tourism is committed to low impact on the environment and the culture of a city, while helping to create sustainable local job growth.

The Newcastle 500 is simply not sustainable in the current location – neither economically, environmentally, nor socially. Loss of patronage to East End destinations is the result. Events work best when they evolve from, or are connected to, the community. They then inject their profits directly back into the community.

These are the events Newcastle City Council needs to support.

Dr Christine Everingham, Newcastle East