I’m not sure when the word ‘branding’ became common parlance, but I do remember when I learned that the word ‘Tasmania’ had a certain appeal. I was on my first extended journey overseas, and it became clear to me that my native toponym warranted an excited response for people from, say, the U.S.A. or Italy or Germany.
That has only increased as the years have passed, and now I realise that there’s now an official effort to elicit responses like this to ‘Tasmania’. That’s what branding is – a deliberate attempt to attach certain positive associations and assumptions with a name. Those euphonious syllables – Tasmania, Tasmania – have no meaning of their own.
Now is not the first go at this: the renaming of Van Diemen’s Land in 1856 was intended to rid the colony of a certain stigma. Lately, we’ve become interested in the brand of Tasmania as tourism has become a big part of how we make a crust on our island. Tourism has begun to make a noticeable impact on our lives here, and we’re told it’s only going to continue to grow.
I started working in tourism just as it had begun to rumble. It’s an interesting time to have accidentally wound up in this realm of work. I have to say that it’s given me plenty of opportunities. Yet I also have some grave reservations about it.
I’m addicted to looking at marketing material. Usually I find it tacky and laughable, but I nevertheless look, wonder – often mystified – and critique. If you’re Tasmanian, I encourage you to pay close attention to the ideas within the ads around Tasmania. We must learn to read between the lines.
Maybe I worry about how we advertise ourselves because I know what the marketing material doesn’t tell. Tasmanians don’t all drink fine wine or snack on goat’s cheese. Half of us are reportedly illiterate, and very many Tasmanians certainly can’t afford a gourmand’s diet.
I’m not expecting tourism brochures to spruik the issues we have in health or education, but nevertheless, we must not let ourselves be distracted or deluded by the glossy images.
All too frequently I am encountering news that reminds me of the shadow side of our advertised identity. For example, the government’s recent attempt to redefine areas of World Heritage country so that they can be adapted for high-end business. Or the unfair involvement of politicians in the proposal for a cable-car on kunanyi-Mount Wellington. Or the cost-cutting short-cuts that the Chinese owner of the Van Diemen’s Land Company farms is hoping to implement. Or the way individuals and families struggling to find housing are camping on the edges of Hobart while visitors are encouraged to come glamping on the edges of national parks.
This is sadly a part of Tasmanian life: part of our history, and very much a part of our present.
The troubles that are associated with tourism branding is to do with what we’re trying to sell ourselves as, and to whom. Inviting visitors to come and voraciously consume our offerings is dangerous, and in the long term, counter-productive. Tourism is a fragile industry. It seems to me that the more slowly it is developed, the more robust it becomes. We can’t rely on merely being trendy – trends veer off in wild trajectories sometimes.
This is especially relevant in Tasmania, which, as an island, has an inherent ecological and social fragility. We emphasise quality over quantity, and among our major commodities are slowness and quietness. Not to mention the fact that most of our special landscapes can’t handle an inundation of humans galumphing through them. We have plenty of incentives to moving more cleverly and less brazenly into a future of tourism.
There is nothing inherently wrong with tourism, nor with branding. I had a conversation this weekend with a well-known restaurateur who mentioned, with some passion, that he wanted to see Tasmania become world-renowned for our skills in service. Now this would be a worthy way to portray ourselves. Likewise, I would like to see us as an island of ideas, a locus for experimental education, for landscape studies, for science, for attentiveness.
We can be bold with our brand. It seems to me that, in a sense, Tasmania is in a position to choose its tourists. For example: why shouldn’t the visitors centres in our national parks stop selling takeaway coffee? That would communicate a raft of fine messages about the identity of Tasmanians, our connection with place, and our commitment to conservation. Drink slowly, we are saying. Linger in beautiful places. Don't wreck the joint. Those who want to consume rampantly can go elsewhere; those who will savour reflective moments – those who will truly taste what we are offering – will be more attracted to our place than ever.
But of course, that couldn’t just be branding. A brand without substance is a brash lie. And in the end, I don’t want us to focus on improving the brand of Tasmania. I’d rather improve on the place, on how we live here. Goat’s cheese, chardonnay and lavender teddy bears aren’t truly the crucial materials of Tasmanian life. We have other, deeper resources that give this land its meaning.