Puffing Billy and what’s wrong with Australian tourism

I had a great day out with the family on the weekend. We took a ride on the wonderfully steam-punk and daggy Puffing Billy train through the Yarra Ranges. It was the first train ride for the kids and they responded well to the chug-a-chug up the hills, the rattling, the smoke, and the intimacy of being able to touch the trees and observe the hills people hanging out their washing or burning off leaves (a favourite hills pass time).

As expected the train was packed with tourists all dangling their legs out the windows, determined to get the maximum value from their $40 return trip. The cost seemed expensive to me.

Am I a cheapskate?

Probably, but it is a unique experience travelling through the hills at 15 MPH being able to lean out and touch the forest and feel the coal smoke sting your nostrils.  It is definitely 2 hours of fun.

We exited the train at Emerald Lake with 2 hours to spend checking out the lake, entertaining children, talking to ducks and all the wonderful things you do as a parent.

We followed the crowd down the hill past the tracks and towards the lake, me pushing the double pram, and my wife carrying the bags. Parenthood means you travel with extra baggage!

When my wife saw the cafe in the distance, she groaned, “It’s going to be horrible in there.”

“Don’t worry”, I replied, “It can’t be  that bad. Look at all these people.”

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The cafe was a shocker. The fare was pre-packed focaccias, pies, sausage rolls, and burnt coffee. It had the feel of a hospital cafeteria not a cafe that is part of a tourism venture that gets obver 250,000 visitors a year. Now I wasn’t expecting an amazing culinary experience, but I was expecting something that could show off the great food and culture of the Yarra Valley and Yarra Ranges.  The whole Lake Emerald was reminiscent of a museum dedicated to showing the history of the double-flush button on Australian toilets since 1974. On second thoughts that would have been more interesting.

Australian tourism often lacks the vision and courage to create a truly special experience for international visitors. Too often the rudimentary experience is delivered with all the panache of a McDonalds next to a petrol station. It is as if we’re ashamed to celebrate what’s great about this country and create an integrated experience that appeals to all senses.

The cafe could have created the kind of fare that visitors to the mountains ate pre-1954 with a modern twist. It would match the retro-steam experience of the train and provide an experience to appeal to the appeal to the “Experience Seeker” segment identified by the Tourism Australia.

I note from the 2010 annual report that Puffing Billy patronage has  stagnated in the past few years. No doubt the Great Recession has had an impact, but the primary cause I believe is the half-arsed Lake Emerald Cafe and short sighted thinking.

It is such a shame because the Puffing Billy volunteers  are obviously committed to delivering a fantastic experience for the punters and did a wonderful job.

Photo Credit

What do you think?