The Australian as 'untourist'

The world's most traveled people, Aussies search for authenticity in

Australians, with their swag proverbially over their shoulders, must travel far if they want to travel at all. In fact, Australians travel more than any other people per capita, says travel expert Jacqueline Huie.

Not only are Australians big travelers, say Ms. Huie and others, but they're also at the front of some important travel trends - including the quest for real experiences rather than package tours.

Call it "fighting the 'been there, done that' syndrome," says John Schumann. Call it "the frantic search for authenticity."

Whatever the case, "People will travel across the world to have an authentic experience - to go where they are genuinely welcomed by a local community," says this folk singer, culture consultant, and sometime politician here in South Australia.

Australians tend to go alone or in small groups. Their ingrained egalitarianism tends to make them uncomfortable about being waited on. And like Mr. Schumann, they want tourism that "shares the life of the people," as he puts it.

It all adds up to a distinctive "travel culture." But if it's distinctively Australian, it's also characteristic of the global avant-garde - those who have all the "stuff" they can handle and want to accumulate experience instead.

Huie calls them "the untourists." According to her, the untourist says, "I want to find things that are real.... Having a good time is finding myself in touch with nature, simplifying my life."

Schumann relates such an untourist experience from a number of years ago in a Liverpool laundromat with some older women there. As he was doing his washing, "they chastised me for not separating the colors," he says.

Australians not only travel more per capita, says Huie, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. They "travel more within their own country, too.... It's a pretty natural thing to the bushies [rural Australians] to drive three hours to the pictures. They just get into the 'ute' and go."

Richard Nile, director of the Australian Studies Centre at the University of Queensland, and his wife are taking a round-Australia car-and-trailer tour. What makes the trip characteristically Australian is not just the distance covered but the fact that they can't just drive straight across the country.

"It's not like [the American] Great Plains. It's all desert. So you hug the coastline instead."

Travel overseas has its own special characteristics for Australians as well.

"When you live on an island, you tend to have a different travel culture, especially when you live 12,000 miles from the center of the universe," Huie says, referring to Britain.

Traveling abroad has traditionally been a sort of validation ritual for Australians. "There's been a feeling that if you're going to do anything interesting, you have to go overseas, that if you haven't been offshore, you haven't got your act together," says Huie.

"Australians don't insulate themselves from another culture," says Graeme Wilson, professor of cultural studies at the University of Queensland. "That's the interest: They want to see how the other culture operates."

Australians tend to shun hotels and package tours, he says, because of the "level of confidence in their ability to handle whatever situation would come up - a confidence perhaps justified, perhaps not," he adds with a chuckle.

For Australia's baby boomers, who came of age just as air travel was becoming more affordable, the post-university European tour was a rite of passage.

Of the current generation, however, Professor Wilson says, "As many plan to travel to Asia as to Europe. Nowadays, they have a special sense of Asia as a more spiritualized culture. Because of the movies, the cuisines, it's not quite as unfamiliar."

For Australians who head for Britain, as many still do, the tendency is to take a working holiday - taking short-term teaching jobs, for instance.

Because of their willingness to go it alone, Huie puts her compatriots into the first of four tiers, along with New Zealanders, Canadians, Scandinavians, and Germans. Travelers from the United States, France, and Italy are on a second tier, her research has found. The Japanese are on a third tier. The fourth tier includes Asians just developing as tourists - Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans.

Travelers from the third and fourth tiers have traditionally toured in groups - in part to surmount the language barrier.

Among the untourists, Huie has identified other trends:

*They like to stay with friends or relatives. To have to stay in a hotel shows that you're not really plugged into the place you're visiting. "It's a status thing," Huie says. In fact, "visiting friends and relatives" is now dignified within the travel industry as "VFR." As Australia becomes more multicultural, that means not only people going "home" to England, but "new Australians" returning to their roots in Central Europe or South Asia.

Schumann tells the story of inviting a well-known fellow musician from Sydney to one of Schumann's own favorite retreats, Kangaroo Island. The star and his family could presumably have holidayed at any five-star resort on the globe, but the modest pleasures of South Australia evidently struck a chord. "Every time I talk with him, he mentions that holiday on Kangaroo Island," Schumann says.

*Stay-at-home tourism. "People say, 'What a great city this is. Why don't I have a look?' " Huie says. City guidebooks aimed at residents rather than visitors have proliferated, she says.

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