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IS THE DIVE INDUSTRY IN AUSTRALIA DYING, DRYING UP OR DOWNSIZING?

By Nigel Marsh

 

In 1996 I wrote a dive guide with the late great Neville Coleman called Diving Australia. The book took a year to put together and included a list of every dive shop in Australia at the time. Recently flicking through the book I noticed that many of the dive shops listed are now gone, a few have been replaced, but most have simply disappeared. This got me thinking about the very noticeable decline in the Australian dive industry over the last decade and left me very worried – is the dive industry dying, drying up or just downsizing?

 

I learnt to dive thirty years ago and while I have never worked in a dive shop, I have been involved in the dive industry through my countless articles for numerous dive publications. When I learnt to dive the industry was booming, the early eighties saw the dive industry expanding rapidly, with new dive shops opening and dive tourism taking off. Scuba diving was an activity that everyone wanted to try, at least once, and sure there were a lot of people who dropped out, and never dived again after their open water course, but there were enough people that fell in love with diving to keep their local dive shop busy with advanced courses, dive trips, gear purchasing and servicing.

 

But in the last ten years the bubble seems to have burst and the dive industry has been in decline in Australia. If I look at Brisbane as an example, in 1996 there were 14 dive shops offering courses, air fills, retail, rental, servicing and dive trips, today there are only seven! In just the last two years four shops have closed in the Brisbane area and this is a figure that is repeated around the country and is a lot worse in other areas; Melbourne has declined from approximately 50 to 20 dive shops and Sydney from 45 to 17. But why is this? I contact dive shops around the country to find out. While a couple of the shops informed me they were doing well and were experiencing growth, the majority reported a decline in business.

 

THE CAUSES

Running a dive shop is not an easy job, and over the years I have seen dive shops come and go. Most of these short term dive shops close due to the industry not living up to their expectations, their dream of a wonderful life of leisure owning a dive shop and diving whenever they want not matched by the reality of the hard work, long hours, low pay and ceaseless effort of running a successful dive shop. While this accounts for the short term dive shops, there are plenty of long term, well established, dive shops that have also disappeared in the last ten years.

 

Bad weather has seen the demise of some dive shops, but more charter boats. It is very hard to operate a business when week after week you have no money coming in if the weather is too rough to dive, and on the east coast especially we have had several bad weather periods over the last few years.

 

However, the following are the major factors that have impacted on all dive shops over the last decade and seen the demise of many of them. Inflation has had a huge impact, with staff costs, rent and a declining cash flow it can be unprofitable to keep a dive shop open. Lisa Edwards, the owner of Nautilus Scuba Centre, which recently closed after 27 years, expanded on this point “… the cost to operate a small business in Australia compared to Asia, even the US, is much higher; highest commercial rents in the world, some of the highest wages in the world, super, workcover, insurances both professional and public. Plus Government licenses and permits, the high Australian dollar, shopping online and finally Workplace, Heath and Safety legislation on diving, for many shops that department was the final straw to shut the doors. The heavy handed tactics of the WH&S Inspectors against the shops in Queensland was so severe in some circumstances the Minister had to be called in over the harassment. Running a dive shop was really a love affair,” that is sadly over for the Nautilus Scuba Centre shop, but they are still operating their charter boat Supercat. Warrick McDonald of Ocean Divers in Melbourne, who has been in the industry for 47 years, also commented on the rising costs “… rent increases (one of my shops 65% and the other 50%) has meant a closure of one half of my shop fronts, and along with wages and utility increases it’s just becoming too hard to maintain a retail outlet.”

Another impact on the dive shops is people diving less locally and more overseas on their holidays, and especially learning to dive overseas, Kevin Deacon of Dive 2000 in Sydney, who has been in the industry 48 years, explains. “A major cause has been the accessibility of the same courses at just about every tropical dive resort in the world. That option simply didn’t exist many years ago, so in one sense, the success of the international dive travel industry and international dive operators, especially in destinations such as Asia has contributed to the decline of local dive shops.”

 

The massive growth in the dive industry in Asia has reflected the decline at the same time in Australia. Backpackers that were learning to dive on the Great Barrier Reef now learn to dive in Thailand or the Philippines. Combine this with the Global Financial Crisis, which has seen many people tighten their budgets, spending less on leisure activities, like diving, and more on necessities, and you can understand why dive shops are receiving less customers in Australia.

 

Too many dive shops and not enough people learning to dive? It looks like plenty of people are still learning to dive if you look at PADI’s certification numbers. Globally the number of dive courses done each year is around 950,000 (all types of courses, PADI don’t publish figures for open water courses). This figure has plateaued over the last decade, but what about the numbers in Australia? I contacted PADI to get their view. Danny Dwyer, Director of marketing and business development at PADI Asia Pacific, wouldn’t give me any figures but did say, “… obviously PADI is aware of the decline in the Australian Dive Industry and we are working very hard with our Members to turn this around. While there were less PADI courses conducted in Australia in 2012 than in 2005, more Australians actually completed PADI courses in 2012 than they did in 2005. It seems many Australians are taking advantage of the strong Australian dollar and deciding to complete their PADI courses while holidaying in Asia.”

 

But how people learn to dive in Australia is also impacted on dive shops. “The start of the decline was the beginning of the two day dive course, this lead to coupon programs.”  Dennis McHugh from Frog Dive Willoughby in Sydney, with 25 years experience in the industry, informed me. Warrick McDonald of Ocean Divers explains, “… coupon courses have been a disaster, not only are the customers often given a second rate course when compared to the full price alternatives but the content and the dubious ‘Internationally Recognised’ claims are stretching the truth. Often the course offered isn’t even a full ‘Open Water SCUBA’ Course but only a ‘SCUBA Diver’ Course that restricts the diver to only dive with a Divemaster or Instructor.”

 

But that’s not all, even if people do the full open water course the dive shops are now making less money per student as Warrick informed me. “Training agencies are taking a bigger bite of the pie, with registration fees set at record high figures it costs more to register a student and to supply a manual. With ‘on-line’ training and registration, training agencies are now taking the ‘cream’ from the traditional SCUBA diver trainers. If a would be diver registers and pays the training agency the shop gets a commission from the training agency, but the face to face contact is lost.”

 

Kevin Deacon of Dive 2000 also explained that having more students is not necessarily the answer. “Since learn to dive courses are run at a loss (subsidized) in the hope of gaining long term clients and sales it is very clear that in today’s retail environment for dive centres this is a very bad business model as the figures soon prove that you are losing more money the more students you have!”

 

But students are not the only ones using the internet to find dive courses, divers are also using it to buy dive gear. Many of the dive shops I contacted see internet sales of dive gear as a huge factor in their decline in revenue over the last few years, as their gear sales have dropped dramatically.

 

All of these factors combined have made it a massive struggle for most dive shops in Australia to stay open in the current market. But what will the impact be if we lose more dive shops?

 

THE IMPACTS

Beside the fact that people are losing their jobs with the closure of so many dive shops there are a number of impacts that are already being felt. Less places to dive for a start, as this decline in dive shops is not just impacting on capital cities, but in regional areas too. In Queensland there are now no dive shops in many holiday towns like Noosa or Hervey Bay, and only a handful between Brisbane and Cairns. In some areas unless you have your own boat and compressor you just can’t dive. With the closure of these regional dive shops we are also losing a wealth of local knowledge about dive sites, marine life and conditions.

 

Less people will want to continue their dive education to become Divemasters and Instructors, as who will want to spend thousands of dollars on the course if the job prospects are very low and declining in Australia, unless they want to work exclusively overseas.

 

With less dive shops it will also become more expensive and more difficult to get air fills or gear servicing. What is the point of buying cheap dive gear over the internet if you can’t get it serviced anywhere locally?

 

Can this sad decline in dive shops be addressed and what can we all do to help?

 

THE SOLUTIONS

Dive shops have to adapt to survive in this changing market place, and many may go the way of Nautilus Scuba Centre and close their shop, ditching retail but offering courses and gear servicing via a charter boat or from home. Social media can be great way to advertise and keep dive shops closely connected with their existing and potential customers, but it can be a double edge sword, with negative and untrue comments getting just as much airplay as positive feedback. Other shops are surviving by specialising, like Dive 2000 that have always focused heavily on underwater photography and travel, while others have embraced the new frontiers of Tech diving or free diving. While it is up to individual shops to work out the best way to move forward into the future, there are a few things that we can do as Aussie divers to assist.

 

For a start support your local dive shop before it disappears. You expect them to fill your tanks and service your dive gear so buy it off them, and not over the internet. It might cost you a little more up front, but it will be cheaper in the long run. You also get to try gear on, see if it fits properly and also get invaluable advice from the staff.

 

Give your local dive shop a hand; join their social club or help to organise social activities, show that you actively support them. Most dive shop owners work very long hours with little acknowledgment or financial gain, it is time we appreciated them and the service they offer us. I give free talks to any dive shop that asks, on underwater photography, marine life or dive destinations, just to give something back.

 

Do your advanced course or speciality course with your local dive shop, it may be a little more expensive than in Asia or on-line, but will give you a better understanding of local conditions and prepare you for those conditions.

 

Dive locally, Australia has some of the best diving in the world so get in the water and enjoy it. If you only dive in the tropics then you are missing out on spectacular diving off Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Hobart, Brisbane, Adelaide and countless regional centres and seeing our unique endemic creatures. You can still dive overseas on your major holiday, but also holiday in Australia, visit the Great Barrier Reef or Ningaloo Reef, and go for local diving weekends, you will be surprised by the wonderful marine life we have in our own backyard. And another thing, the Great Barrier Reef is not dead, it just as good as it was when I first dived it thirty years ago, and it is still better than most of those destinations that you spend thousands of dollars to visit overseas.

 

Encourage your family, friends and work colleges to do a dive course in Australia with a local dive shop; they may even like it as much as you and it will expand your group of dive buddies.

 

And finally the dive industry needs a united body as Andrew Wood, of Pro Dive Cairns, explains “…we as a group need to have a true independent industry body, similar to the old Dive Australia that collapsed around 1996. We could, as a group, work together marketing Australia and each region as a destination for diving both at a national and international level. This would allow group support for government funding, expos, travel forums, TV Shows and sponsorships. We are one of the few industries that have no Australian body for our sport or industry; we still seem to have an every man for himself approach. In Cairns we have focused our energies into the adventure market, as for us they are our closest bodies, however all the Cairns dive shops work together to promote the destination globally. Marketing our sport is more important than ever as we have more competition than ever before.”

 

I hope this article has made you sit up and think about the future of the dive industry in Australia, and your local dive shop – before they both disappear!

 

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