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Demographic Trends and Likely Futures for Australia's Tropical Rivers

Carson, Dean, Taylor, Andrew and Campbell, Suzanne (2009). Demographic Trends and Likely Futures for Australia's Tropical Rivers<br />. Darwin, NT: Charles Darwin University.

Document type: Research Report
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Author Carson, Dean
Taylor, Andrew
Campbell, Suzanne
Title of Report Demographic Trends and Likely Futures for Australia's Tropical Rivers
Publication Date 2009
ISBN 978-1-921576-14-0   (check CDU catalogue  open catalogue search in new window)
Publisher Charles Darwin University
Place of Publication Darwin, NT
Total Pages 47
Field of Research 370500 Demography
370501 Population Trends and Policies
Abstract Executive Summary

This report profiles the changing nature of the resident and visitor populations in Australia’s  tropical river catchment areas (collectively the ‘TRaCK region’). Demographic changes are examined  in terms of mobility and temporariness, age, gender and Indigeneity and whether trends observed in the past ten or fifteen years are likely to be carried forward in the next ten or fifteen years, and how this might influence the population makeup well into the 21st century. From tourism perspective numbers and types of visitors are profiled along with the nature of the trips common to the region. The supply side of tourism is assessed for its ability to meet the expectations of changing and evolving tourism markets. The application of this research is to inform assessments about and the planning for future human, economic and environmental scenarios for the region in conjunction with other research streams being conducted under the TRaCK banner to support river and estuary management in northern Australia (see

The TRaCK region is home to just two percent of Australia’s resident population (about 310,000 people), a quarter of who are Indigenous (around 110,000 people). The population mix in the region is unusual, as it includes 16 percent of Australia’s Indigenous population, around half of Australia’s Torres Strait Islander population of 30,000, is visited by more than 20 percent of international visitors to Australia, and host about six percent of travellers in Australia each year (about 4.5 million visits). Its population is relatively young with a median age of 33 years compared to 37 years for the rest of Australia. Its sex ratio indicates over representation of males in the population at 106 males per 100 females compared to 97 per hundred for the balance of Australia. The sex ratio for non-Indigenous people was higher still at 108 compared to 97 for the rest of Australia.

Population growth in the region has followed two distinct paths. The first is the rapid increase of Indigenous populations since the early 1980s. The second has been high rates of population turnover among non-Indigenous populations, including a trend to outmigration to other parts of Australia and population growth based largely on immigration from overseas. The two paths are linked by a trend towards urbanisation which has been observed for both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. Meanwhile the age composition of growth during the past decade and projected in the results of this study raise significant concerns about the ability of the region to generate sustained economic outcomes based on distributed economic growth. This is because almost all  population growth has been concentrated in the ages 45 years and over and these residents will either retire in the region, creating a large dependency burden, or move away, diminishing the economic and social capital. And if the declines in the 20 to 34 year age groups observed during the past decade continue the potential for the region to respond to development opportunities will  diminish while the economic burden of dependency rises.

Tourism activity in the areas covered by the TRaCK region has been highly concentrated in and around Darwin, Broome, and Katherine in terms of visitor nights, while activity in the remaining areas has been comparatively sparse. International visitors account for around a third of the estimated 4.5 million visitors per annum and around five percent of all visitors to Australia visit  the region, and almost all for leisure purposes. Around a half of all international visitors to the region travelled alone compared to around a third of domestic visitors.

While almost all international visitors said they came to the TRaCK region for leisure, many domestic visitors came to visit friends and relatives as well as for business purposes. International visitors are more likely to be on multiple destination trips with the mean number of overnight stops reflecting this at six compared to two for domestic visitors. Transport to the  region by domestic visitors is shared equally and dominated by air transport and private vehicle. By contrast, international visitors also arrived by bus or scheduled coach services, many of whom are on packaged tours. Domestic visitors tend to stay at hotels and with friends and relatives, whereas international visitors utilise a wider variety of accommodation types including backpacker  hostels and caravan parks. In terms of activities undertaken by tourists in the TRaCK region the most common one was eating out, followed by going to the beach and visiting national parks. Aboriginal tourism activities featured relatively little for domestic visitors but were more likely
to be undertaken by international visitors.

The performance of tourism in the TRaCK region can be described at best as flat. During 2000 to 2007 the domestic tourism market in Australia experienced virtually no growth. Likewise, the market share of domestic visitors to tourism regions linked with the TRaCK region was static at around 4.5 percent. The TRaCK region’s share of international visitors was also static between 2002 and 2007 at around 21 or 22 percent but this market has grown over the same period so that the number of  visitors to the region may have increased. Consequently, the growth in the tourism market in the 2000s has been almost exclusively from the international visitor market, and the focus of this market on Cairns and Port Douglas may mean limited dispersal of visitors to the TRaCK catchments.

This study finds that the human geography of the region might best be described as peripheral since  it is a long way away from core markets and suppliers (which are principally in the South-East of  Australia). The region has its own internal cores and peripheries (per Borgatti and Everett, 1999),  particularly in the Northern Territory and Queensland sections where rural and remote populations focus on Darwin and Cairns (which is adjacent to the region) for shopping, services, entertainment  and the limited local markets for product distribution that are available. Patterns of population change appear to have been affected more by economic and socio-political factors than environmental, locational or historical factors. The far north of Australia has been developed, at  least post-European settlement, largely on the basis of staples such as mining and agriculture. Staples economies are associated with particular patterns of human settlement (Watkins and Wolfe, 2006). They involve industries of extraction, in which a narrow range of jobs are located at the point of extraction.

The development path of the TRaCK region would appear to be well aligned with that of other staples economies. The results of this analysis show a distinctively ‘split’ population with three groups identifiable. The first is the growing Indigenous population who have relative permanence in the region. They have a high demand for health, welfare and education services (Jackson et al., 2008).  The second is the ageing resident non-Indigenous population who reside outside of the larger urban centres and are engaged in the staples of agriculture and mining. The third group is the highly mobile urban residents who exhibit relatively short lengths of stay in the region. Characteristically, the economies of staples-based regions come to revolve around services  provision (with the public sector being an unusually large employer) as much as the extractive industries. High staff turnover in the public sector often results in overstaffing of public agencies to help avoid understaffing and to give the impression of capacity (Foelster and Henrekson, 1999). Non-Indigenous populations tend to be male dominated and concentrated in the working age groups, and particularly the young working age groups. Child populations are dominated by Indigenous people, and the Indigenous populations tend to low sex
ratios as their males suffer from high rates of preventable disease and low life expectancies (Karim-Aly, 2001).

Given this there are a number of concerns in terms of the future development potential for the  region. The immediate prospects for tourism growth right across the TRaCK region are limited given the declining share of visitors which the region is seemingly attracting. Meanwhile resident populations have become more urbanised, with Darwin and surrounds experiencing the most rapid population growth while growth in the remainder is either flat or declining. The modelling undertaken for this project anticipates continuing growth of resident populations, but that growth  largely confined to more urban catchments. However, the key features of the population – highly volatile as a result of the staples based industries which dominate the economy, high mobility
among the working population, and the impact of seasonality on population movements – are likely to persist and make the task of forecasting a difficult one. The dual population structure involving long term (mainly Indigenous) residents on the one hand and temporary residents and visitors on the other is likely to be a persistent feature throughout most of the region. The global financial crisis and downscaling of mining operations is likely to counterbalance agriculture related population increase, at least in the short to medium term. Nevertheless, an increasing preference from immigrants and Indigenous people to live in urban centres is a trend that is unlikely to be reversed in the short or medium term.

In summary, the human populations of the TRaCK region by the middle of the current century are likely to have grown in total (both residents and visitors) but become even more concentrated in larger centres. There will be a higher percentage of Indigenous people. The population will continue to age, but with ageing attributed equally to smaller cohorts of Indigenous infants and  growth in the post working age groups. The current large cohort of young Indigenous people will move through the working age groups over the next ten or fifteen years, while the current large cohort of mid-career non-Indigenous people will retire. Many of both groups will move away, continuing the established pattern of high mobility and residential moves to more urbanised parts,  which may further fuel mobility in the more remote areas. Isolated pockets of tourism development  may occur, but the bulk of the infrastructure will remain in the established areas, and the current trend is toward decreased dispersal of tourists.

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Created: Wed, 09 Mar 2016, 11:07:13 CST by Marion Farram