All shook up about Elvis in remote Aussie town

Men dressed as Elvis Presley ride in the back of a convertible during a street parade at the annual Parkes Elvis Festival last Saturday. Across the country, small towns have been finding creative ways to put themselves on the tourist map.
Men dressed as Elvis Presley ride in the back of a convertible during a street parade at the annual Parkes Elvis Festival last Saturday. Across the country, small towns have been finding creative ways to put themselves on the tourist map.PHOTO: REUTERS

Parkes' Elvis festival is just an example of how regional Australia tries to tap tourism boom

In a small country town in Australia earlier this month, thousands of people flocked to the main street to watch a parade of people dressed as Elvis Presley.

Ignoring soaring temperatures, about 25,000 visitors - including many in jumpsuits and oversized sideburns - went to Parkes for its annual Elvis festival. It was the 25th anniversary of the festival held in a remote wheat and sheep farming town with a population of 12,000, about 350km west of Sydney.

The festival began in 1993 as a tiny local weekend event but now lasts five days and brings in about A$10 million (S$10.7 million) a year.

Ms Kristy Berry, whose shop sells Elvis-related sunglasses, gifts and other items, said the five days were exhausting but "fabulous". "There are some days where we don't get to eat, we don't get to drink, we don't get to sit down," she told local ABC News.

This unlikely festival is helping to address a growing problem that has faced communities in regional Australia: how to cash in on the tourism boom. Across the country, small towns have been finding creative ways to put themselves on the tourist map to lure both local and international visitors. There are now festivals celebrating the Swedish pop group Abba in Trundle, food and wine in Orange, Bob Marley in Kandos, and cider in the apple farming town of Batlow.

Numerous beer, film and flower festivals have also opened in recent years, and at least two annual events dedicated to the ukulele. More established festivals include the internationally renowned country music festival in Tamworth, which is almost 50 years old.

Analysts say the approach appears to be working and that many of the towns are seeing rises in annual visitor numbers.

An expert in tourism economics, Professor Larry Dwyer, from the University of New South Wales, said the festivals were helping to create awareness about otherwise little-known tourist spots. He said they were more likely to be successful with domestic travellers and international visitors who are making repeat visits and tend to be more "confident, adventurous and independent".

"A lot of people may not have a clue what Parkes has to offer but they may go to the festival and then go back if there are things to do," he told The Straits Times.

The proliferation of regional festivals comes as Australia enjoys a tourism boom, fuelled by a weaker dollar and surging numbers of visitors from China. Australia had 7.5 million international visitors last year - a 50 per cent increase in the past decade. Of these visitors, 1.2 million were from New Zealand and 1.1 million were from China.

Regional Australia has struggled to reap the benefits, however. In the past decade, the proportion of international visitors who travel to regional areas has dropped from 49 per cent to 42 per cent.

Tourism Australia said it has been seeking to promote regional areas in its recent international campaigns, particularly as growing numbers of Chinese visitors make return trips. Last year, 47 per cent of Chinese tourists were repeat visitors, compared with 37 per cent a decade ago.

A Tourism Australia spokesman told The Straits Times that air access was limited but several Chinese airlines have been looking to add flights to areas beyond major cities. She said first-time visitors tended to focus on east coast capital cities but tourism authorities were hoping that "highlighting other amazing regions will encourage them to come back and venture further".

"It's true that not all areas of Australia are sharing equally in the current tourism boom," the spokesman said.

"But that's always been the case, and to a large degree a product of international aviation access and international traveller demand."

Prof Dwyer said first-time travellers to Australia tend to stick to cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, partly because "Australia is so big" and visiting regional areas can involve extra time and money. But he said regional spots could work with tour operators to target repeat international visitors and offer them a "rural experience".

"Tour operators could target them by saying 'next time, why not consider a farm experience or see the magnificent outback?'" he said.

Experts say the festivals are a clever way to lure visitors, especially for smaller and more remote towns which cannot simply offer "weekends away" from cities such as Sydney or Melbourne. The festivals have tended to pick themes based on foreign celebrities, perhaps because icons such as Abba seem so far removed from quiet farming towns.

Two academics who have written a new book on the Parkes festival, professors John Connell and Chris Gibson, said the experiment succeeded because of "inspiration, patience and creativity". Such festivals not only bring in visitors, they said, but make regional Australia a "richer and more vibrant place".

"The festival has created employment, generated income, provided a degree of pleasure in the drought years and given one town more than a reason to hope," they wrote in a comment piece for The Conversation website on Jan 10.

"Where Parkes has succeeded, its neighbours have sought to follow."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2017, with the headline 'All shook up about Elvis in remote Aussie town'. Print Edition | Subscribe