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An Olympic Games is the ultimate chance to showcase your podium-worthy city. The Sunshine State fully intends to max out its time in the sun.
Thirty-three years ago, Brisbane hosted an international extravaganza that changed the city. Expo 88, opened by Queen Elizabeth II on April 30, 1988, and themed “Leisure in the Age of Technology”, ran for six months and attracted more than 15.7 million visits – at a time when the country’s population was 16.4 million people.
Its legacy was partly physical: the Expo site, on the formerly down-at-heel South Bank, became the 17-hectare South Bank Parklands, the city’s much-loved leisure precinct. It was also pyschological: Brisbane not only proved it could hold its own on the world stage, its image of itself shifted from sleepy backwater to leisure and culture hub.
All the same, cynics rolled their eyes when Brisbane and south-east Queensland announced in 2016 that they were bidding for the biggest international event of them all, the Olympic Games.
There will be no more eye-rolling.
Since Australia’s third-largest city – home to a million more people since the Expo 88 days – was declared host of the 2032 Summer Olympics in Tokyo last month, there has been only a bright-eyed focus on the opportunities ahead.
Brisbane residents have long thought the city, once known as a “big country town”, grew up decades ago (and it probably did), but there’s no doubt the Olympics will supercharge development, including a fast train between venues on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts to Brisbane.
Brisbane Cricket Ground, more commonly known as the Gabba and host of cricket and AFL for the past 126 years, will be redeveloped into a $1 billion, 50,000-seat Olympic stadium; a temporary aquatic centre on top of Roma Street Station will become the 15,000-seat concert venue Brisbane Live after the Games; the International Broadcast Centre, dubbed Southbank 2.0, will sit on the Brisbane River near West End.
“The 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games would transform Queensland – and the rest of the nation along with us,” Queensland Treasurer Cameron Dick promised last month, citing trade and tourism as two major winners.
With more than 100 Accor hotels in Queensland, just under half the hospitality company’s Australian inventory, Australasia chief executive Simon McGrath is still high-fiving.
Forget the sport. When done right (and preferably without a pandemic in play), hosting the Olympics has the potential to propel a country’s tourism prospects long after the podiums have been packed away.
“An Olympic city is the ultimate marketing coup,” says McGrath. “You can’t buy better publicity. When you think how well Australia is positioned to exit the pandemic in terms of being seen by the world as a large, safe island that’s relatively COVID-free by the time the 2032 Olympics rolls around, we’ll be set to capitalise on global travel hunger.”
We are not building something for a three-week sports party, but building a new city.
— Daniel Gschwind, Queensland Tourism Industry Council
Accor is already looking to bolster its presence in Queensland with refurbishments and other investment.
Other tourism industry leaders echo McGrath’s enthusiasm, including the president of Carnival Australia and P&O Cruises Australia, Sture Myrmell. “The excitement that goes with being an Olympic city will add to Brisbane’s status as a cruise hub, both as a turnaround port for our Australian-based ships and for international ships and passengers in a post-pandemic environment.”
Destination Gold Coast chief executive Patricia O’Callaghan says while the pandemic wiped $3.2 billion from the Gold Coast’s tourism coffers in 2020, its Olympic-sized future will help its 4600 tourism businesses reposition and rebrand. The Gold Coast is slated to host up to 14 Olympic events across five to seven venues.
“This has lifted everyone’s spirit, despite what’s going on now,” she says. “Such a major global event will help speed up and support our recovery, both in terms of marketing and tourism infrastructure legacy projects.”
The Olympics and Paralympics deliver far more than a few weeks of blanket international coverage for a host destination. They create a sustained spotlight: from a lead-up that starts about five years out – including speculation about whether the host city will be ready in time – to schmick travel shows fronted by big names like Joanna Lumley.
It’s hard to imagine what the world will make of the Big Pineapple (hi Woombye!); we can but wait and see.
Then the celebrity sports stars arrive, along with heritage sponsors such as Coca-Cola, which burst onto the Olympic scene in Amsterdam in 1928 when a freighter arrived with the US Olympic Team and 1000 cases of Coca-Cola, and Omega, the Olympics’ official timekeeper since the 1932 Los Angeles Games.
The Queensland government’s Olympic bid documents claim the event will generate $20.2 billion in international visitor expenditure from now until 2036, along with increased export opportunities of up to $8.6 billion.
The Games, which Queensland estimates will cost about $5 billion to host, are also expected to create 130,000 direct jobs.
As for the tourism benefits, while Tokyo remains hopeful its pandemic-plagued Games will deliver visitors in droves when the time is right, Olympic cities London (2012) and Rio de Janiero (2016) clocked mid- to longer-term “Olympic bounces”. Britain reported its highest international visitation rates since 2008 in the first half of 2013, and the Brazilian government reported a record 6.6 million tourist arrivals in 2016.
So, how will the road to 2032 shape Brisbane’s next decade, in terms of infrastructure and perceptions?
Top of the list will no doubt be catapulting itself into the league of Sydney and Melbourne, where the bulk of international visitors spend most of their time and money. Tourism Research Australia data from recent years shows 67 per cent of international visitors holiday in Sydney, 32 per cent in Melbourne and just 15 per cent in Brisbane.
Daniel Gschwind, chief executive of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council, describes the Olympics as a “light on the hill. It reminds us there is a future. It motivates us to start creating the city and state we aspire to live in the future.
“We are not building something for a three-week sports party, but building a new city.”
One attraction sold hard to the International Olympic Committee was Brisbane’s accessibility. It will be a five-minute train ride from Brisbane’s CBD to the Olympic Stadium at the Gabba, courtesy of the new $5 billion Cross River Rail project, now under construction. And it’s just a five-minute stroll from Queen Street Mall to the Brisbane Live stadium.
The International Broadcasting Centre will be built around the corner from South Bank Parklands, and media and spectators will be able to ride bicycles to major events in and around the city.
The Olympics aside, the perception that Brisbane lags Sydney and Melbourne for excitement has shifted over the past few years, with the Queensland capital opening a number of hotels as good as anything you’ll find south, including The Calile, The Emporium South Bank and W Brisbane. While the city lags Sydney and Melbourne for hotel inventory, it does win bronze, with more rooms than Perth, according to data from Dransfield Hotels & Resorts.
Brisbane’s accommodation offering has “experienced tremendous growth over the past seven years, with supply up 34 per cent”, says Matthew Burke, Pacific manager at hospitality analysts STR.
“A wide range of new brands and types of properties have opened which were initially spurred by government incentives to energise the accommodation offering in Brisbane.”
Key properties still to open are mainly in the Queen’s Wharf development, including Brisbane’s first Ritz-Carlton Hotel, due to open in 2024.
In terms of attracting international tourists post-pandemic, the sheer weight of “gateway infrastructure” recently opened in Brisbane will make it easier than ever to fly or cruise directly to the Queensland capital, bypassing Sydney and Melbourne.
Brisbane’s second runway was completed last year. Costing $1.3 billion, the runway site covers an area half the size of Sydney’s international and domestic airports.
Then there’s arrival by sea. Before COVID-19, cruise was the new black when it came to arriving in Australia in style, with growing numbers of international travellers opting to visit by sea during the southern hemisphere cruise season.
The fact Sydney’s coveted Circular Quay Overseas Passenger Terminal has been at capacity for years (with nearby White Bay not far behind) bodes well for Brisbane, where a new $177 million international cruise terminal officially opened earlier this year.
“In addition to having more cruise destinations than any other state, Queensland has a trifecta of solid cruise-enhancing infrastructure projects ... ready to go,” says Carnival’s Myrmell.
“Further north, the dredged Trinity Inlet allows cruise ships to berth in the heart of Cairns, and the massive Townsville port upgrade is providing access for cruise ships up to 300 metres in length. This combination means Queensland is perfectly placed to leverage to the maximum the cruise tourism halo of the Brisbane Olympics.”
As for holding on to that golden glow well beyond the 2032 closing ceremony, Destination Gold Coast’s O’Callaghan has plenty of 2018 Commonwealth Games intelligence to share with Brisbane.
After the 2018 event, a record 14.2 million tourists visited the Gold Coast in 2019, a 13.5 per cent rise year-on-year.
The secret? “We went extra hard with marketing campaigns, and garnered a lot of national media support for Gold Coast content,” O’Callaghan says. “It’s all about keeping it top of mind for people after the athletes have left.”