This month, I celebrated a milestone birthday and welcomed my visiting dad and stepmom to Australia. Getting a family visit as a Foreign Service Officer, even to an “easy sell” country like Australia, is a relatively rare chance to catch up and share a bit of your FS world with loved ones you don’t see often enough. The ‘promised’ influx of visitors during our tour in Australia has not materialized; our time here is two-thirds over, and my dad and L were our first visitors! I’m not really surprised: after all, Canberra isn’t Sydney or Melbourne. And although Americans are fascinated with Australia, relatively few actually get here – less than 1% of Americans traveled down under in 2017. Although my dad and stepmom could only stay a week, we had a great time with them, touring Canberra and saying goodbye to my 30s on a road trip to the South Coast.
So two Americans came to Australia to see us, but for most Americans, Australia remains a faraway enigmatic land of deserts and dangerous wildlife. During 2017, around 780,000 Americans visited Australia, which is one quarter of one percent of the total U.S. population. By contrast, 1.08 million Australians visited the United States last year – almost 4.5% of their population. (Sources: Traveller magazine and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.)
So why don’t more Americans actually make their dream to visit Australia reality? Despite its first world, Anglophone, visa-free-for-Americans status, I think the long and expensive flight to Australia, its huge territory, and “driving on the wrong side” can intimidate less-than-adventurous visitors, especially if they don’t know anyone here. (Can I also perhaps blame Americans’ watching too many stupid YouTube videos about deadly snakes and spiders, and ‘violent’ kangaroos?) Although a trip to Australia takes effort, it is simply unique in the world.
In early 2018, Tourism Australia launched an A$36 million campaign aimed at getting more Americans to travel here. The commercial, advertising a faux-reboot of the 1986 Crocodile Dundee film, aired in the U.S. during the Super Bowl. Social media lit up with memes and excitement. And according to Australian media, half of all the Super Bowl ad digital engagement in the following six months was related to Tourism Australia, edging out Coke and Pepsi, Budweiser, and automotive industry giants. And by the end of the year, American tourism in Australia was up (although still lagging behind the Chinese), spending a record A$3.6 billion, and moving beyond the major cities to country and rural areas, a major aim of the campaign.
The Dundee ad, while not for a real movie, was the first major campaign aimed at drawing American tourists to Australia since the Australian Tourism Commission’s memorable campaign featuring Paul Hogan in the 1980s, which also first aired during a prominent U.S. sporting event.
Who doesn’t remember “Come and Say G’day” and “throw another shrimp on the barbie?” But although these commercials capitalize on Australia’s obvious natural beauty and leverage funny stereotypes to promote their irreverent, laidback culture, Australia doesn’t want “shrimp on the barbie” to be all that comes “top of mind” when Americans think about Australia. (Also, no one drinks Foster’s or that horrid Yellow Tail wine here, and the Outback chain restaurant is not a thing. You’re welcome.)
In my opinion, although the U.S. passport is tied for fifth place in the most powerful passport ranking (as measured by the number of countries permitting visa-free access, at 186 this month), more than half of us just don’t take enough advantage of it. But the number of Americans getting passports and traveling abroad has been steadily rising. According to Forbes, in 2017, 21.4 million Americans were issued a passport, a record high. And earlier this year the BBC reported that in 2018 the percentage of Americans with passports hit 40%, and it’s been rising for twenty years. When I graduated from high school in 1997, an astonishing 85% of Americans did not have a passport (and I was one of them!).
To be fair, our country is huge, and until 10 or 11 years ago we didn’t even need passports to travel to neighboring countries like Canada and Mexico. Americans can (and do) travel for thousands of miles without leaving their own language and currency zone. But because we are relatively wealthy, safe, and privileged, and export our culture and language worldwide, we sometimes forget to look beyond our comfort bubble. A one-sided exchange doesn’t make us better diplomats, politicians, scholars, or voters.
Now, I am not oblivious to the fact that many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, still don’t have a passport, or don’t have much of an ambition to travel abroad to begin with. Until my early 20s, I was in that category myself. I know Americans have limited time off, lots of domestic travel options, and obligations that tie us to home. We also receive lots of negative messages about the Big Scary World Out There. But I have come to believe that when we go traveling in new and foreign places, we come to know and understand our own selves more deeply.
As FSOs, many of us have provided encouragement to family and friends to see the world who perhaps otherwise would not have ventured out. And that’s a great thing. If you want to make a trip to Australia happen, consider giving it a go and you won’t be sorry. It’s a great way to break the ice with your passport. And if you’re an FSO whose family flew overseas to see you, especially to the developing world, say thank you and be glad for the time together.
This was actually my dad and L’s second visit to see me in Australia; they came to see me in 2006 while I was studying in Sydney for my masters. During that visit, we covered greater territory, touring Sydney, the Blue Mountains, and the outback, and then they went on a separate trip without me to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.
This time, they encountered first world problems on the way here, missing a connection, being rerouted, and temporarily losing one bag. Even so, arriving exhausted and 5+ hours later than planned, they were elated and somehow very awake. They even stayed up for a proper dinner! And, we have the BEST neighbors:
Their first full day here I took them to Floriade, which I wrote about when V and I attended it last October. Even though it was a little cold, they loved it.
After lunch, we went to the Australian War Memorial. It is an incredible museum and I believe also the most-visited museum in Australia.
There was also a special exhibition of 62,000 handmade poppies from all over Australia to commemorate the Australian lives lost in World War I.
To my dad’s surprise, I had requested his participation in the daily Last Post Ceremony in which Australia remembers one of their 200,000 war dead each day with a reading and wreath-laying. He was a little shocked when I told him shortly beforehand, but there were a lot of other people laying wreaths on the day, including the Police Commissioner from the Cook Islands and a South Korean military delegation, so he did not feel too put on the spot.
It turned out this particular young Australian, Private Beard, fought in World War II, but was also repeatedly court-martialed for AWOL and being drunk and disorderly. He was remembered and prayed for just the same and I couldn’t help smiling that he broke some of the rules in what ended as a tragically short life. He died before my dad was even born. God rest his fighting Aussie soul. Here’s a link to the video of the ceremony, about 22 minutes long. My dad lays the wreath around minute 12.
It was a special day capped off with an incredible Balkan dinner that V literally spent all day making.
The following day was my birthday, and although I had an unavoidable 07:00 call with Washington, soon enough we hit the road for the beach. I’d rented a beach house for the weekend, but we detoured first to Tulip Top Gardens in Bywong and Eling Estate Winery in the Southern Highlands wine region.
The gardens, only open for 4 or 5 weeks a year, are just too absurdly beautiful. It took us a full 90 minutes to walk through the grounds.
But when I’d rented it several months ago, I had not yet been sure if they were coming or if I’d do something else. So, I figured, you only turn 40 once! And it ended up being a very peaceful and restful space to have some neutral family downtime.
We brought both cars because on top of the luggage and massive amounts of groceries we ferried, we didn’t want anyone to have to sit in the back on the winding mountain road through Kangaroo Valley; my car is too small, and V’s car isn’t reliable enough to bring solo. But fortunately we had zero issues.
We also had amazing dinners Friday at Kanpai and Saturday at the Gunyah, both of which I highly recommend. Of course, since I was born in California, which is 18 hours behind Australia’s east, I had to celebrate my birthday for two days straight! And in the last hour of being 39, I sat drinking champagne in the hot tub with my dad and V and talked about my gratitude for a chance to welcome my 40s and set some goals for what I wanted to accomplish. It was truly wonderful to share that time with my family!
The following day, we visited nearby Blenheim Beach, Bateman’s Bay, and historic Braidwood on our way back to Canberra. My dad was surprised at all the dead blue bottle jellyfish on the sand, remembering my exceedingly unpleasant encounter with a live cloud of them attaching to my waist in late 2005. But these were harmless.
The following day, we had a picnic at one of my favorite places in Canberra – Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. And, we were joined by these guys! And yes, they were as close as it looks.
After lunch we went for a walk on the Sanctuary lake loop, and saw an Australian white pelican, more roos, black swans, koalas, various parrots, lizards, and laughing kookaburras hunting from tree perches. My dad and L marveled about the unfamiliar foliage and the huge sky.
That night I took them out on the Kingston Foreshore for their first Thai food, and they loved it!
The following day I gave them a tour of U.S. Embassy Canberra, and then we spent several hours at the National Zoo and Aquarium. My dad joked that the trip was so busy that he’d have to go home in an ambulance!
That night we grilled out in the back yard, taking advantage of the unseasonably warm spring weather.
On their final day, we had an awesome private tour of Australian Parliament House (APH), just for the three of us. (That’s the equivalent of the Capitol Building for you Yanks.)
On the tour, I learned that APH has 17 gardeners who tend to its grounds, and that the Australian flag that flies overhead is replaced once a month early on a Wednesday morning. The flags are produced in Melbourne and valued at A$2,500 each; thus, they are made longer than standard size so if they rip at the tail from flapping around in the wind, they can be specially trimmed to their proper size per protocol and reused. Flags that cannot be reused are recycled with all due dignity. I can’t drive to work now without gazing at the flag over APH and thinking of this.
After a tasty lunch at the Queen’s Terrace Cafe on a busy sitting week where Parliamentary staff rushed in and out, it was unfortunately time to head to the airport. We enjoyed some cocktails and then stayed until their plane flew away.
When they left, I was struck that I had tried so hard to create a perfect experience for them, that maybe I didn’t always spend enough time in the present. As FSOs, we get so good at packing things in and making the most of a short time, that we can overwhelm our family and friends who normally enjoy a slower pace of life. Our time together tends to be more infrequent than we’d like, and especially as our parents get older and slow down, we’re even more anxious to show them everything and make memories together.
Some of us have family who are eager to jump on a plane to come see us anywhere, and others prefer we come to them. Some take the initiative to plan things to do, others are a bit dependent. Some of us share similar political views and lifestyles to our families, others not so much. Some relatives are supportive of our choice to live and work overseas, others don’t understand and resent it. I have been lucky that my in-laws, parents, and brother support my goals even when they don’t share them, and for that I am grateful. According to what I hear from my network of colleagues, that is not always the case.
But I say cherish the memories, and count your blessings if you have visitors who flex their passports to walk with you for even a short time in this crazy life. In early 2019 my mom will be here, and we shall do this again, albeit in different cities!