Google Maps’ ‘inaccurate’ outback travel times could be deterring tourists, businesses say
The Eromanaga Natural History Museum’s Robyn McKenzie says travel times are inaccurate. (ABC Western Qld: Aneeta Bhole)
From dinosaurs in Winton and Eromanga to the world’s most remote racing event in Birdsville, it’s understandable why the Queensland Government has dubbed 2019 as the year for outback tourism.
But business owners in the state’s south-west say travel times on Google Maps are inaccurate and could deter tourists from making the trip.
Among those worried is Robyn McKenzie, general manager of the Eromanga Natural History Museum, which holds the remains of prehistoric creatures, including what is thought to be Australia’s largest dinosaur.
“You can’t actually see these bones anywhere else in Australia, in fact you can’t see them anywhere else in the world,” said Ms McKenzie, pointing to a full-scale 3D-printed replica of the giant sauropod’s bones.
“The great thing about these regionally-based museums is that you’re actually seeing these dinosaurs in the area that they come from.”
Ms McKenzie hopes to see more people travelling to the Eromanga Natural History Museum this year. (ABC Western Qld: Aneeta Bhole)
Fears maps are costing visitors
Despite the colossal drawcard for tourists, Ms McKenzie believes Google Maps is partially responsible for low visitation numbers.
“We’re developing a major tourist attraction in outback Australia,” she said.
“It’s in a remote part of Australia, so mapping, and accurate mapping, is key.
“What we’re finding is people aren’t coming to these parts of Australia because Google Maps isn’t updating its mapping.
“People just simply don’t come to these areas because the travel times are incorrect.”
The Eromanga Natural History Museum is home to fossils of prehistoric creatures including what’s thought to be Australia’s largest dinosaur. (ABC Western Qld: Aneeta Bhole)
With little mobile phone coverage on the long roads through this pocket of south-west Queensland, the issue of safety is also a concern for Ms McKenzie.
“We’ve had people travelling here redirected on to people’s properties and that becomes a safety problem and a privacy issue,” she explained.
“People aren’t coming to places because they think it takes too long, or they’re missing opportunities to refuel and they’re getting sent off on another road that has no fuel.
“That puts fear in people, people will get frightened of travelling in the outback because they don’t have any confidence in the mapping.”
Thousands of people converged on Birdsville for the dustiest horse race in the nation. (Supplied: Birdsville Races)
Pushing for change
Over the past three years Ms McKenzie has tried contacting the multinational corporation herself and through the three tiers of government.
“It just goes into the too hard basket,” Ms McKenzie said.
“It’s hurting these rural communities because we’re just not getting the tourism because of it.”
Just over 200 kilometres north of Eromanga is the Windorah Western Star Hotel.
Empty tables and chairs sit outside in the shade of the pub, soundtracked by the churning of ceiling fans in the 40-degree heat.
Windorah publican Ian Simpson says tourism is important to small outback towns. (ABC Western Qld: Aneeta Bhole)
Publican Ian Simpson said low visitor numbers were not unusual for this time of year, and that without big tourism events throughout the year the survival of these towns would be threatened.
“Birdsville races and the Big Red Bash bring a lot of people to these little towns,” Mr Simpson said.
“It means a lot, not for just the pub, but the communities on the way, it just keeps you going.”
The road to Birdsville from Windorah was estimated to be close to 11 hours by Google Maps last week, but since the ABC contacted the company for a response, the estimated time has changed to about 7 hours and 45 minutes.
But Mr Simpson said it was closer to four hours with no stops, and a maximum of six otherwise.
“If you want to pull up and look at the old Betoota Pub or pull in at Deons Lookout or see the snake on the hill or anything like that [it would take six hours], but no, it won’t take 10 or 11 hours,” he said.
“We’ve seen the Google cars come through here a couple of times but haven’t had anyone to talk to us, so I don’t know how they work that figure out.”
Google Maps recently estimated the time between Birdsville and Windorah to be close to 11 hours. (ABC Western Qld: Aneeta Bhole)
Looking for a solution
Google said data for its mapping tools came from a wide range of sources including third-party providers, public sources and user contributions.
In a statement it said:
Google Maps strives to accurately model and reflect the real world. We are investigating to see what may have happened here and will take the appropriate action. We apologise if any businesses or communities have been affected negatively due to errors on the map.
Siobhan Toohill and her partner Adrian Wiggins have been travelling through outback Queensland with their son Malley Wiggins for the past week.
Ms Toohill said while they had experienced inaccuracies in the maps, planning ahead of time and checking with local sources had meant she was able to enjoy the trip.
Siobhan Toohill says forward planning is important when venturing into the outback. (ABC Western Qld: Aneeta Bhole)
“I was mindful that we can’t always trust the data or we can’t trust the information that we see on the Google Maps website,” she said.
“That said, we still do rely on Google Maps here and there when taking these trips, but it’s worth doing a bit more research and you’ll have a lot of fun out here.”
Mr Wiggins said it would be a shame to see people deterred from making a trip to these rural communities.
“There’s a lot to discover and there’s always people along the way who I love meeting and enjoy getting to know and having a chat with, it’s a great place to travel,” he said.
With Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announcing 2019 as the year for Outback tourism, the industry is hopeful about the year ahead.
Outback Queensland Tourism’s Peter Homan is positive about the year ahead for the industry. (ABC Western Qld: Aneeta Bhole)
The year for outback tourism in Queensland
Outback Queensland Tourism general manager Peter Homan said more than 850,000 visitors travelled to the region in the past year.
“Year on year we’re still growing at about 8.7 per cent, which is really strong considering the state average is less than 3 per cent, so numbers continue to grow out here,” he said.
“We’ve had some really good wins with some infrastructure funding and that’ll reflect in increased numbers in tourism next year and the year after that.
“I think the outback has really embraced and engaged with tourism and it’s really helped.”