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The travel industry in Australia: an overview

Elise Tornos

How to start your career in the travel industry. From airlines and arts to ecotourism — find out where you fit in and how to get your foot in the door.


From scuba diving in the Whitsundays to visiting Uluru, to walking through the Daintree Rainforest or watching Sydney’s famous New Year’s Eve fireworks, Australia beckons to tourists from across the globe with a vast array of activities and attractions to suit travellers of every kind.

Unsurprisingly, tourists visit in welcome droves—in 2017, more than 7.9 million international travellers came to Australia, staying for a combined total of 266 million nights1. By injecting around 51 billion dollars into the Australian economy, they supported just under 600,000 jobs. In other words, one in every twenty Australians is employed within the tourism industry, making it a larger sector than agriculture, forestry, and fishing.  

The tourism industry is most productive in New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria, but is also economically important in the smaller states and territories. While some visitors do visit for business reasons, about 78 percent of travellers stated that their reason for coming to Australia was “a holiday” or “to visit friends and relatives”2.

Such travellers are generally more likely to do ‘touristy things’, like visiting sites of interest, travelling domestically, or engaging in other activities that require the support of a thriving tourism industry. And with tourist numbers increasing by around 7% a year3, there’s every reason to expect that the tourism industry will continue to expand by leaps and bounds.

What’s involved

The travel industry contains several sub-industries that are significant enough to warrant separate consideration. However, first a caveat: the tourism industry is not as well-defined as many other industries, some of which contribute partially, but not fully, to tourism revenue.

For example, the airline industry is often considered a sector in its own right, because only some of its activities involve tourism (airlines are also involved in air freight transportation, logistics, research, and so on). Nevertheless, due to the airline industry’s importance to domestic and international tourism in Australia, it’s often considered to overlap with the tourism sector, which is why we have included it below.


During the 20 years leading up to 2016, global tourism boomed, and the annual number of flights to Australia grew from 9.3 million to 24.6 million inbound seats4. This surge has allowed Australian airlines to grow at phenomenal rates, and it’s expected that further expansions remain necessary. Indeed, to meet its revenue goals, Tourism Australia—the government agency responsible for attracting international visitors—predicts that Australia’s international aviation capacity will need to grow by a further 40 to 50 percent.

The complexity of airline organisations means that they hire a broad range of professionals whose activities support tourism within Australia. These employees include flight attendants, pilots, airplane mechanics, engineers (aeronautical, aerospace, mechanical, electronic, and so on), security screeners, software developers, and more.

Arts and culture

Insofar as it relates to the tourism industry, the arts and culture sector includes all those individuals who contribute to management, administration, and operation of tourist destinations and related activities such as museums and galleries; historical and heritage buildings; Aboriginal cultural sites; festivals, fairs, and cultural events; theatre, stage shows, concerts, and other performing arts activities; and art and craft venues and workshops.

The arts and culture sector encompasses both private and public organisations, from the Sydney Opera House Trust to the National Gallery of Victoria. It employs an equally broad range of professionals, including curators, marketers, accountants, historians, lawyers, management executives, tour guides, cultural coordinators, event planners, and more.


Tourism Research Australia (an Austrade subsidiary) estimates that, in 2017, ‘hotels, motels and serviced apartment (HMSA) accommodation accounted for 114.9 million nights, or 19% of total accommodation nights in Australia, with 35% of overnight visitors spending a night in this accommodation type’5. This might seem surprisingly small, and reflects the growing significance of alternative accommodation types (especially those made available by big players in the sharing economy, like Stayz and AirBnB).

Nevertheless, the hotel industry still employs some 270,000 people in Australia, and this number is set to grow, with tourism spending expected to reach $167 billion by 2025, and many major hotel construction projects currently underway6.

Hotels provide employment to various professionals whose jobs involve vastly different responsibilities. These include lawyers, concierges, management executives, human resources staff, accountants, finance personnel, marketers, civil engineers, and front desk agents.

Conferences and conventions

In 2017, about five percent of international visitors to Australia arrived for business. Tellingly, Australians themselves completed huge amounts of domestic travel, with 35% of Australians flying interstate for work.

While it’s difficult to find recent numbers, we know from preliminary research that a primary driver of modern business tourism is the growing prominence of conferences and conventions, which bring together professionals who share an industry, a research interest, a relationship with a specific product or organisation, or a business concern.

Conferences cover numerous topics, with major examples including the Australasian Oil and Gas Expo, the Melbourne Home Show, and National Manufacturing Week. They’re often temporary affairs, offering temporary jobs, though they’re frequently based in venues that provide permanent employment to a small number of professionals. Within the conferences and conventions sub-area of the tourism industry, you’ll find administrators, events coordinators, finance personnel, marketing staff, programmers, engineers, and more.

Outdoor recreation

With its world-famous beaches, popular diving sites, and extraordinary natural environments, Australia is a leading player when it comes to attracting tourists who visit with the intention of enjoying some outdoor recreation. Given the appeal of outdoor activities to locals, as well as travellers, it’s difficult to say exactly how much overlap there is between the tourism industry and the outdoor recreation industry. However, ABS statistics hint at the outdoor recreation industry’s importance—when Australians travel domestically, their favourite activities include surfing, swimming, bush activities, visiting national parks, fishing, and boating7.

The outdoor recreation sector employs various professionals in private and public organisations of every size, from sole operators to highly profitable businesses, such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. These professionals can include tour guides, lawyers, finance staff, marketing personnel, administrators, business graduates, and accountants.


Ecotourism is a relatively new travel type that aims to attract tourists who are environmentally conscious and interested in the natural world. At the core of all ecotourism activities is a commitment to sustainability. This is often coupled with a belief that promoting responsible tourism within the natural environment is an effective way to raise awareness of (and funds for addressing) various ecological issues, such as deforestation, climate change, habitat loss, and so on.

Some of Australia’s most popular ecotourism destinations include Ningaloo Reef, Kalgoorlie, the Dandenong Ranges, Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef, and Cradle Mountain National Park. Ecotourism businesses may offer trip planning services, ecotourism activities (such as group hikes, guided tours, and so on), and sustainable accommodation. The professionals they employ include naturalists, scientists, hospitality workers, events coordinators, finance personnel, and more.

Who are the key players?

Public organisations

At a federal level, Australian tourism (both international and domestic) is promoted and regulated by Tourism Australia, a government organisation tasked with “attracting international visitors to Australia, both for leisure and business events.” To fulfil its mandate, Tourism Australia maintains a presence in 16 key markets and activities include advertising, PR and media programs, trade shows and industry programs, consumer promotions, online communications and consumer research. It’s supported at the state and territory level by governmental agencies such as Visit NSW, Tourism and Events Queensland, and Visit Victoria.

Private organisations

Key private organisations within the Australian tourism sector include major airlines, such as Qantas, Jetstar Australia, and Virgin Australia; prominent hotel operators, such as Hilton, Marriott, Accor, and Mantra Group; and popular private arts and culture organisations, such as the Museum of New Art in Tasmania and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (which operates as a not-for-profit charitable organisation).

Entering the tourism sector

Few professional jobs within the tourism sector are specific to the tourism sector. Rather, one’s trajectory into the sector will largely be determined by the requirements of a particular discipline. For example, an engineer employed within the tourism sector is unlikely to have trained in any degree that was specifically designed to prepare him or her for a career in the tourism industry. One notable exception to this general rule concerns lawyers, some of whom may, while students, choose to focus on the growing body of domestic and international tourism law.

Several key players in the Australian tourism industry, including Tourism Australia, most public state and territory tourism bodies, and major operators like Qantas and Virgin Australia run graduate programs designed to recruit talented grads from a range of disciplines. You can learn more about graduate employment opportunities in this area by visiting the GradAustralia website.