New South Winfrey

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 10 December 2010

Imagine an American talk show host visiting Europe for a couple of recordings. Would the British display her picture on Big Ben? Would the Italians evacuate the Coliseum of Rome for her? Would the French cordon off the Champs-Élysées so she should move around more easily?

If such ideas strike you as absurd, you are obviously not linked to the organisation committee of Oprah Winfrey’s visit to Australia.

As soon as the queen of talk had announced her intention to tour Australia, authorities started preparing as if it was for a joint visit of the Pope, the Queen and the US President.

Streets will be closed off, traffic diverted, and the Sydney Opera House turned into the Sydney Oprah House. The cost to taxpayers is estimated to be $3 million. Thankfully, the organisers stopped short of renaming the state into New South Winfrey. It would not have surprised us, though.

Why is it that Australia is going all crazy about Oprah? It can hardly be because of her popularity in this country, where her show only occupies an early afternoon slot on a commercial network.

A more plausible explanation is that Oprah’s visit is regarded as a marketing tool for ‘brand Australia.’ Indeed, the value of Australia’s airtime on American TV is substantial. If only a fraction of the global Oprah audience followed her footsteps and holidayed in Australia, the investment would pay off. But is this likely?

The latest ‘State of the Industry’ report by Tourism Research Australia revealed the crisis of Australian tourism. Over the last decade, even manufacturing outperformed tourism in terms of output growth. Tourism’s nominal growth rate from 2001 to 2009 was a sluggish 3.9 percent, which in real terms means standstill.

The poor state of Australia’s tourist sector has little to do with the desirability of Australia, which globally still ranks as a dream destination. But a strong Aussie dollar and a perceived lack of tourism infrastructure both contribute to the decline in the industry’s fortunes.

Tourists who still make it to these shores will notice these shortcomings when they have to wait an hour to catch an overpriced cab from the airport. Oprah’s visit may reinforce the desire to visit Australia, but it won’t do anything to make the actual experience more enjoyable.

There is another lesson from the Oprah craze. Other countries would not lose their minds over an Oprah visit for a reason. They are self-assured enough to know what image of themselves they want to show to the world – and they would not change it for any imported show star, no matter how famous.

Australia’s currying favour to Winfrey only demonstrates how uncertain we are of ourselves. We seek confirmation from a global TV star instead of confidently stating who we are.

This is cringeworthy – and it won’t project the image of a confident, attractive Australia to the world.