Brisbane - Still a Gateway to ... Somewhere Else.
Battling the Brisbane Blues. or "Sorry, we are currently closed for refurbishment. Normal service will resume as soon as possible as we don't know how to change the clocks."
I have long given up counting just how many times I've attempted to write a travel blog about Brisbane. Although I can't exactly call it my home town, it is where I've lived for nearly 20 years. And let's be clear on this from the outset, it's a wonderful place to grow up, raise a family, to stay alive in, to work in and enjoy some of life's simple pleasures in. It's a grand place to call home for many.... but where does it stand as a tourist destination exactly?
Back in the day, when tourism was beginning to take off, as were cheaper flights and faster routing to the land far down and under, Brisbane quickly became a mere stop off or stop over for those who had heard about the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef or the Gold Coast's swelling surf. The GBR in particular, saw a huge surge in backpacker arrivals in the town, but this was almost certainly followed by a hasty departure up north. It became a major issue for Brisbane's tourist offices and agencies: Just how to keep the tourist dollar in town for at least one night longer?
I can't honestly say that 30 years late anything has really changed? Yes, there are more hostels, more hotels, more restaurants and better bars but are they really affordable on the backpacker budget? And if they aren't, what do they do otherwise? What will their holiday cash be spent on? Where are the icons they want to be photographed with ... standing in front of, not looking at, and ticked off their 'must see, must do' lists? Where are the modern wonders, where's the affordable entertainment, where are the state of the art tourist destinations to harness their energy and peak their interest? I really don't see them, and so it continues. Although there is an increased likelihood that backpackers will stay in town longer because there is more ad hoc work available, usually involving jumping out at strangers on Queen Street Mall holding out fake handshakes and chugging their way into peoples lunchtimes. You can pretty much rest assured that the money earned will be spent in Airlie Beach or Port Douglas rather than in Brisbane itself.
So, backpackers still aren't here for Brisbane then. So what of the travellers with cash to spend? Those enjoying their first few years of healthy pay-packets, wanting to do Australia properly and with less care on how much things might cost. Where do they stand? Pretty much in the same boat, apart from that boat is unlikely to be a ridiculously empty River Queen Paddler and much more likely to be a tall ship or ferry on Sydney's glorious harbour, heading up the Yarra in a kayak, or once again, skipping over the flat blue calmness of the Coral Sea atop the rapidly diminishing, yet still incredible, Great Barrier Reef.... Although pretty soon the spiel will proclaim "Come See the Great Barrier Reef - Gleaming Sparkly White!" but that's another story.
Many tourists come to Brisbane to visit family and friends. They are probably the longest stayers, but they don't help the hotels and hostels out much, or the restaurants for that matter. The Australian barbecue will see off many of those nights out and having guests who want to eat out here can soon put a hole in any families own future holiday budgets. Even attempts to make dining out in Brisbane more 'happening' like the Eat Street Markets are severely hampered by the desire of visitors to eat fried potatoes on sticks instead of actual street food and have provided little incentive to attract the tourist dollar, and to the best of my knowledge spiral chips on sticks is a grotesque global phenomenon and therefore, once again, nothing unique to Brisbane.
Wonderful parks, the Botanic Gardens, many varied suburban and cultural festivals, open air food markets and urban enclaves are all well and good but they're once again akin to a happy and healthy lifestyle rather than a thrill a minute, jaw-dropping and unique holiday experience. Yes, the hotels are improving but the history has all but been eroded, leaving 'on point' bars and themed pubs in its wake. 'Queenlanders' and 19th Century facades are being pulled down and replaced with glass edifices that might easily be seen in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Bogota or even Tel Aviv. The Australianess has all but been obliterated, let alone the Brisbaneness. Even the celebrated 80's enticement of BYO has all but gone - That throwback from when Australia did things differently, and I have long lamented the fact that we won't even be given a complementary peanut with our over-priced and under-measured Aperol Spritz.
At least the beer has improved with the development of many craft breweries in the area, but I wonder if I'll one day lament the loss of a simple, although terrible, local lager such as XXXX and resent the bearded hipster brand of fruity 'real' ale poured patronisingly in its stead.
The elderly and educated then? There's money there surely? I'm not so sure there is. Once you've tapped your concessionary passes through the usual turnstiles, there really aren't that many places left to go to keep them entertained, freshly watered and wee'd. Certainly not in a manner they can't get at home. Obviously, the Jacaranda's in full full bloom around about October time are a thing of great beauty, and I heartily encourage anyone coming to Brisbane to come here in the Spring, yet it hardly warrants a 10,000 mile trip crammed in the back of a Boeing 333. If you think I'm being unfair, then please read the Top 10 holiday experiences in Brisbane as of TripAdvisor right now (See below), and it might help put it all into some kind of perspective. This isn't a personal attack on Brisbane, it's simply a plea or a submission that this fine city can't be pinned on the tourism map just yet, not until things change drastically.
The weather, the cleanliness, the low crime, the new gleaming modernness and multicultural diversity found here are all well and good, but they speak of a cosy domicile and not a wonder of the world. Obviously, until Queensland rectifies the ridiculous Daylight Saving situation, things can never truly improve and why would they? The whole city is designed for its inhabitants. When your biggest tourist draw for 15 years straight, is a commuter ferry from nowhere to nowhere in particular and back again, you know you're in trouble. The population rises with the sun at 5am, goes running or rowing or walking or worse, has an expensive coffee and avocado breakfast and then goes to work at 8am. When they get home, it's an early meal in or out, the restaurants are closed by 8.30pm, and everyone hops off to bed again ready for the next dawn raid. I have lost count of the number of visitors who have complained about hovering wait staff eager for diners to leave so they can close up and go home at a decadent 9 o'clock. I myself was in the local and very successful Green Beacon Brewery recently and the staff gave notice that it was closing well before 9pm and the place was half full. It is supposed to close nearer to 11. Everyone was pretty pissed off, and some had only just arrived, but this is no rare event. I have no sympathy should things go down their smelly old toilet as the clients should come first and not the bedroom requirements of their indolent and arrogant staff.
Every single visitor to the city remarks that everywhere is closed Monday to Friday and that there is absolutely no night-time atmosphere. For this dire situation to improve the clocks need to change and so does the attitude. The best cities in the world for a tourist are the ones that never sleep. The ones that offer an array of exciting and unique opportunities not found at home. Brisbane can't compete with that at the moment. I can also assure you that the much talked about Queen's Wharf project is going to do little in enhance Brisbane's reputation as a global tourist destination. It will be just another tacky means of getting the local dollar out from the pockets of Queensland's gaming community, familiar low end high street eateries and place in which to loiter, wondering what might have been.
Brisbane as a city, is like one great tv ad for a local gym. Far more concerned in selling leggings and spandex active wear to its chai latte supping throng than it is in selling 'IHeartBrisbane" T-Shirts and caps to a sweaty, purple faced tourist covered in melted ice cream and a dreamy contented smile. It's not exactly a problem that Amsterdam, Hong Kong, New York or Dubrovnik face. Venice no longer wants its tourists.... Brisbane hasn't the first clue on how to even attract them for more than a couple of days and as a result, it's a problem it's never going to have. On the bright side, I suppose, if there is nothing for the tourist to do here that is quintessentially Brisbane or uniquely Australian, there is no point in adding an extra hour to the living daylight anyway. I should point out that I realise that it would be extremely difficult for Brisbane to compete with many of the world's most beautiful and greatest cities, but let's also understand that it can't even get a bar into the global Top 100... on any list whatsoever. The Renaissance isn't required for that, nor is a drug addled architect and an easily bribed Lord mayor. No ornate canal system, no Royalty, or Big Apple neither. Just a room with some atmosphere that sells over priced alcohol to the glitterati. Surely that can't be so difficult? Well, yes it can if it closes at 7.30.
Yes, it's an absolutely wonderful place to live, but you come here on holiday for a week? Would you get value for money? Would you recommend it to the global travel community? Would you rather be somewhere else? Yes, there are several places to visit from and outside of Brisbane but that's not the point of this article. The point isn't to be rude about Brisbane but until something is done, and I mean properly done, the headcount won't rise very much. I know a rich history can't be invented overnight, or a cultural icon developed on spec, a specialist food movement is even tougher to create but can those trying to put it on the world map as a global tourist destination, stop making small time declarations of greatness and sprouting parochial rhetoric and do something about those f***ing clocks instead?!
Brisbane's Top 10 Tourist Experiences
CityCat Ferry - Commuter Ferry on the River
City Tours - Scheduled Bus or Boat Tour on the River
City Hopper - Free City Travel Service including on the River
Roma Street Parkland - Small Park
Boggo Road Gaol - Small Old Gaol
Rocks Riverside Park - Small Park by the River
New Farm River Walk - Pretty Walk by the River
Queensland Performing Arts Centre - Theatres etc near the River
Story Bridge Adventure Climb - Bridge Climb for those not going to Sydney that spans the River
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary - Small Zoo by the River
OST's Top 10 Tourist Experiences
CityCat Ferry - Commuter Ferry
October's Jacarandas - Lilac bloomfest
New Farm Park and Riverwalk (Maybe that should be two things, three if you include the Powerhouse)
Craft Beer Brewery Tours
Sunday at South Bank
AFL game at the Gabba - When the Lions are winning
The CityCat in the other direction
Happy Hour - Somewhere in one of the few places on the river.
Il Macelleria - Proper old school Gelato from Bologna (?)
An Early Night - Ready for the early morning flight.
Brisbane is a wonderful place to live. Its development is growing apace and, mostly, in the right direction too. Its infrastructure is becoming more sound and its inhabitants more culturally diverse. It is a modern, safe, clean and industrious city, but Bris-Vegas it certainly isn't, Bris-Urbane is most definitely is.
In the competitive world of global tourism, Brisbane is still much more a two night stopover at a great big, sunny Terminus Hotel than an Australian holiday destination of choice, and that's a shame because it's really very, very nice.
Thanks for reading.