• It seems sad that people can live in Australia for a year and barely meet any Australians. (iStockphoto/Getty)Source: iStockphoto/Getty
Backpackers come to Australia to experience life and culture Down Under. But, writes Dom Knight, many backpackers will only have minimal contact with Australians during their stay. Should we be doing more to welcome these intrepid travellers and improve their impression of our country?
By
Dominic Knight

2 Dec 2016 - 1:59 PM  UPDATED 2 Dec 2016 - 3:51 PM

After much wrangling, the Senate passed the backpacker tax at 15 per cent, preventing an exorbitant 32.5 per cent rate from kicking in on 1 January.

The move will be popular with the farmers who rely on backpackers to pick their fruit, and also with the tourism industry.

But Australia is already a very expensive country to visit, so most young people contemplating a year here are relying on work to make ends meet. Forcing them to give up nearly a third of their earnings would have been discouraging indeed.

While our policymakers seem to have done their bit at the eleventh hour, I wonder whether we don’t need to do more to welcome the young visitors from overseas who are looking to enjoy the Australian lifestyle, and in many cases improve their English.

A friend of mine from Tokyo spent a year in Sydney a few years ago. She wanted to improve her English, but ended up spending most of her year having experiences she could have had back home. She studied a Japanese-run beauty course, worked at a Japanese restaurant, and lived with mostly Japanese people in one of those overcrowded apartments that are so common in our inner cities.

While our policymakers seem to have done their bit at the eleventh hour, I wonder whether we don’t need to do more to welcome the young visitors from overseas who are looking to enjoy the Australian lifestyle, and in many cases improve their English.

I was one of her very few Australian friends, having met through a mutual friend in Tokyo. Through her, I got an insight into the working holiday community that existed right around me, but operated very differently manner from my own world. 

She lived with seven or eight people in a two-bedroom apartment. Along with the Japanese nationals, there were a few guys from Indonesia and a French and an Italian who were here to improve their English. I was shocked to discover that she slept on a glassed-in balcony that was definitely not approved as a bedroom — it was apparently boiling in summer and freezing in winter. But because she paid only $150/week including WiFi and unlimited rice, she was fine with it — and, indeed, there was nothing else in that price range. She would have had to live a long way from the city to get anything the same price, and as she breezily explained to me, Japanese people were used to getting by with very little space.

Over the year she was here, I invited her to a few parties, and she always brought a couple of friends along. The guests said that they were so excited to be going to an Australian party, which I found quite embarrassing given that it was generally just a few friends coming round for someone’s birthday or something, a very normal Sydney social event. But the invitation always seemed to be appreciated — as was the English practice.

I was invited to a couple of their parties in return — most backpacker flats seem to hold regular barbecues, with enormous delight in embracing the Australian tradition, even though I was the only passport-carrying Aussie in attendance. Like expats everywhere, they made friends quickly, and served as one another’s families while they were a long way from home.

It’s very much enriched my life having a few overseas friends — I’ve been to a few of their weddings, stay in touch via Facebook, and always catch up when we can. And it seems that our cities are teeming with would-be pals who simply don’t know how to meet Australians — that was the question I was constantly being asked.

One woman I met back in Tokyo said that during her time here, that she and her friends often went out to bars, hoping to make new Australian friends, but nobody ever said hello to them. They were surprised, in particular, that single guys never approached them the way they would have in Japan.

While travelling solo in other parts of the world, random strangers have often chatted to me — it happens often in Tokyo bars, for instance — and I’ve usually appreciated it. But Australians simply don’t do it. I like to think we’re a friendly people, but we tend to consider approaching strangers as rude.

I like to think we’re a friendly people, but we tend to consider approaching strangers as rude.

It’s a pity we aren’t better at making these connections. Over 41,335 working holiday visas were issued in 2014-5 — an increase of more than tenfold in a decade. And the friendships we make as young people can be transformative. Not only are the social ties invaluable, but quite a few of them end up migrating here, or developing ongoing business ties once they get back home. 

A parliamentary discussion paper also pointed out that “It is well established that WHM entrants make a significant contribution to the Australian economy”. We’re missing out by not doing more to welcome these year-long visitors, and turning temporary visits into lifelong connections.

I’m not sure that Australians will suddenly begin approaching strangers in bars, but it occurs to me that welcome events could be held. This does happen via places like Meetup.com, but I suspect most attendees are from overseas. But city councils could hold regular get-togethers with appointed local ambassadors, bars could have special nights for overseas visitors, and new arrivals could be added into existing networks via email lists or Facebook pages. There could be a program to offer jobs in Australian workplaces so visitors have alternatives to hospitality jobs working primarily with people who speak the same language.

Not only are the social ties invaluable, but quite a few of them end up migrating here, or developing ongoing business ties once they get back home. 

But the best way to solve this problem, I suspect, is via accommodation. Instead of condemning working holidaymakers to living in dangerously overcrowded apartments exclusively populated by fellow foreigners, we could build public or public-private housing that provides small bedrooms with communal living spaces, like some of the housing that’s offered to university students by Unilodge and Urbanest. (They cost $350 a week, apparently, so some kind of subsidy would probably be required for the less wealthy.) Young Australians could be provided with discounted rent in return for helping out, a bit like seniors at university colleges.

It seems sad that people can live in Australia for a year and barely meet any Australians. So if you come across some working holidaymakers from overseas who seem a little lost, by all means say hello.

You might just make a friend for life — and at the very least, the person you meet won’t be able to lament that they came to Australia for a year and didn’t meet any Australians.

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