TOURISM is a terrible way to earn a living. People who are dependent on tourists' spare change are obliged to cheapen everything they hold dear. Their cuisine must be internationalised. Their culture must be merchandised. Their handcrafts must be churned out in vast numbers for prices tourists are prepared to pay.
My neck of the woods in south-east Queensland is visited by 300,000 sightseers a year. They come by day to see the Natural Bridge and swim in the creek (which is strictly forbidden) and by night, to see the glow-worms in the cave under the Natural Bridge.
Because the tourists can't remember to turn off the flash option when taking photos, the glow-worms look a bit sickly these days, so the operators of the nightly bus tours from the Gold Coast have to supply that little bit extra to justify the prices they charge. Some promise a ''typical'' evening around the campfire with billy tea and lamingtons fresh from the supermarket. The highlight of this ''unique'' experience is the whirling of the boiling billy by a man in a hat with corks suspended from the brim. The man who does this is a genuine bushie; if he took you on a walk in the rainforest he could name every tree, but there's no call for that. He particularly enjoys the stage of the evening when the little Asian brides perch on his knee to have their photo taken.
Whitefellas may worry that Aboriginal people living along the tourist trail, with little choice but to entertain tourists round the campfire with songs and dances and Dreamtime stories, might debase their cultural inheritance by oversimplifying it. The Aboriginal people I know are too canny to run any such risk; the version of their culture that they offer passers-by has little or nothing to do with the rigours of their actual spiritual life.
Tourism inspires and demands fakery - fake art, fake artefacts, panhandling and blarney. What the vendors mustn't do is fall for their own sales pitch.
Three years ago I was shocked to find, in a tourist shop in Kakadu, an unused Yolngu log coffin. What was it doing there, amid dot-patterned didgeridoos and illustrated boomerangs? It was not a trade object. Whoever made it and painted it with austere and delicate geometric patterns in black and white on ochre had invested that creative energy in giving a revered someone the right send-off. The young woman at the till had to look the object up in the catalogue. ''It's a coffin,'' she said. ''Three hundred dollars.'' I could have bought it and used it as an umbrella stand. (I didn't.)
Australians are no happier spieling and spruiking than they would be wheedling and begging. Would it be a disaster if tourism in Australia hit the buffers? In the latest issue of Departures magazine published by American Express, there is not a single mention of Australia. The ideal destination for golfers is Greece, for surfers Spain, while shoppers are directed to Lisbon and Montreal. Russia, India, Holland, Argentina, Mauritius, Mexico, Sicily, Macau all have more to offer than anywhere in Australia. The travel agencies that advertise in the magazine list the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, the Maldives, St Lucia, Cape Town and Dubai. Australia, it would appear, is over.
In May, the director of national parks told Senate estimates that the number of visitors to Uluru had fallen by 19 per cent. Visitors to Kakadu were down 16 per cent. Days later, Qantas halved the number of flights between Cairns and Uluru and suspended flights from Perth to Uluru altogether. Jetstar flights, too, have been reduced.
The obvious cause would be the cost of the dollar if the tourists who mattered were all from overseas, but three-quarters of Australia's tourism is domestic. So we have to consider that Australians have less to spend, probably because of the higher cost of housing and borrowing inevitably resulting from resource-led booms, not to mention fuel prices. Grey nomads have to think twice before taking to the open road.
When the cheapest night at the refurbished Park Hyatt Sydney is $745, it is possible Australia has priced itself out of the market. If we can no longer afford to take the kids to Sea World, Wet'n'Wild and Australia Zoo, so much the better. We can take them bush instead.