Queensland: Surly One Day, Herpes the Next

Here in Victoria, click we have a new Government led by a man named Ted. Tremendous indifference for State politics means I cannot offer you a useful overview of Ted. However, hepatitis I can say, case he’s a former real estate agent and, it seems to me, a bit of a nob.

The only other intel on Ted I ever picked up was in the course of my gig as a travel writer. Back in the late nineties, Ted was a board member for Tourism Victoria. When you consider that the man was then, and always has been, about as hospitable and warm as a witch’s tit, this seems like an odd appointment. But, the more travel stuff I write, the less I am shocked by the promotion of nobs in tourism.

Undressed aggression is the Australian hospitality industry’s stock-in-trade; “You want chips with that?” its malevolent battle-cry. We are unable to serve anyone without a sneer. We take shame, not pride, in good service. Oprah can tell the world we’re “spiritual” and “relaxed”. Lara Bingle can take off her Tankini to her heart’s content. The plain truth is, Australians are absolutely shit at hospitality.

Tourism Ted, in fact, has just taken his special brand of inhospitality to a new level. For some years at public events in Victoria, government Ministers performed an acknowledgement of Indigenous Australians when speaking. Ted scrapped the practise on the grounds that a tip-of-the-hat should not be compulsory; that it was far better for the acknowledgement to be heartfelt, spontaneous and genuine.

Now, this all sounds very well and good and I might have more time for Ted’s shift in policy if (a) any politician ever was capable of being heartfelt, spontaneous or genuine and (b) Victoria wasn’t in such a massive pile of shit that you’d think un-making harmless policy would be about as urgent as legislating on foot-stools. All that aside, this Ted business is a matter of the bad manners that are the foundation of our service industries.

Ted, like many Australians, fails to understand that in uttering please, thank you or Goodness, Don’t You Look Fabulous and Thanks For All The Land, you don’t have to mean it. For the sake of a functional nation, or a thriving hospitality industry, you just have to say it. WTF is wrong with a little sugar? And why, in the name of all that is gastronomic, is it so impossible to find; even in our so-pretentious-you-could-carve-it fine dining culture?

Big bucks are no guarantee of good service in Australia as I recently learned when I laid down ninety for Shiraz in a King’s Cross brasserie. When asked to describe its bouquet, the sommelier, described it as “a bit like a big fart”. No, thanks, mate. Your charming Australian honesty really set the mood for an intended night of romance with the wife.

This national resolve to be rugged, rude and “real” might work very well in our sport, literature or film. The plain-speaking Aussie has a certain appeal in certain industries. But, he has no place in hospitality. But, there he is: front and centre unable or unwilling to conceal his hate.

Just a month or two ago, I was treated to a non-stop weekend of “tourism” Australian-style. Along with more than one-hundred international travel writers, I’d been invited to Queensland. In the wake of flood devastation, the peak tourism body was investing its cash in PR. Like many other State sponsored schemes, this idea looked wonderful on paper and I, like many others, were moved by compassion to attend. In the minivan, however, it was a different story.

I had more “real” Australia than anyone should be prepared to cop. Of course, a writer grizzling about the poor quality of her free holiday might seem about as reasonable as a politician whining that his gratis Statesman came without an iPod dock. But, perhaps it helps to understand that these junkets, or “famils” as they are known are not holidays but a high-speed pursuit of a story. They’re not a “break” but a perverse contract between tour operator and writer: in exchange for mindless head-nodding as you endure fifty stupid gift shops that sell ugly wooden bananas carved by a ten-year-old Chinese girl, you might get to sell a few hundred words for a few hundred bucks.

God knows you’d better because you’ve been too busy saying, “what a lovely banana” for the past week to actually do any work. On the international “famil”, I will allow, there can be some lovely perks. Often, operators throw journalists a spa treatment or a bit of wagyu beef to keep them sweet. Always, they show impeccable manners. In Queensland, tourism professionals hold to the idea that it’s better to be “real” than it is to be pleasant.

I am certain Queensland is a very nice place in which to reside; most particularly if one’s twin passions are melanoma and foul-tasting beer. As a tourist destination, however, it feels just awful. Upon deplaning, my tour guide was late to pick me up. “Traffic,” she texted and kept the “real” Australia alive as she told us that there’d been a big restructure at the tourism office and she was only on contract and, by the way, she couldn’t accompany me to Stradbroke Island because she had a Natural Health exam on Monday.

Upon arriving at my hotel, I was greeted by a fatally candid young concierge that told me that (a) Brisbane is shit (b) the coffee served at the hotel is shit and (c) working in hospitality is shit. Upon alighting at Stradbroke Island, I was served by a waitress who spat at our group of writers, “I’ve been told to give you a bottle of wine”. That she managed to turn complimentary booze into venom was really quite a feat.

Upon leaving, we attended a Gala dinner. The food was quite nice but the featured entertainment was scooped from the cauldrons of hell. An all-girl electric-string group were billed as “weapons of mass seduction”. Now, I’m sure that there are places where thirty-something women in wigs can hump cellos in their petticoats and not look out-of-place. At a Gold Coast strip joint or in a mangrove, for example. It didn’t fit. Unless the tourism people were going for a, “Come to Queensland where the chicks are for cheap” angle.

After four days, all I could think was Queensland: Surly One Day, Herpes the Next.

Honesty comes easily to Australians. But in hospitality, it also comes at a cost. Potential billions are lost by tools who can’t even get it together when media professionals are watching.

In Victoria, I miss the acknowledgement of Indigenous ownership. In Queensland, I missed nice manners. In both cases, I’d rather see “fake” pleasantry than no pleasantry at all.

When I travel in America, I honestly don’t think that the lady at the deli counter gives a shit if I “have a nice day”. But, damn, if it doesn’t feel better to hear that salutation than, “You want chips with that?” It’s nice to be nice. Even if it hurts a bit.

This was commissioned for the fine fellows at FHM Magazine

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