Could education be the next boom industry in FNQ?
INTERNATIONAL education's economic contribution to Australian economy is on track to equal, if not eclipse, that of tourism - sparking calls for an entirely new marketing mindset.
New Australian Bureau of Statistics figures reveal international education was worth $37.6 billion to the Australian economy last financial year, up a staggering 15 per cent on 2017-18.
International tourism sat at a healthy $42.5 billion spend in 2018, up 4.5 per cent, according to Tourism Research Australia.
Synergies between the sectors are undeniable, but James Cook University's international Pro Vice-Chancellor Melissa Banks said the education industry's sheer scale of opportunity meant its marketing needed to be a separate beast.
"Tourism has done a great job in terms of getting Cairns on the map," Ms Banks said.
"What we need to do now is emphasise that Cairns not only caters for tourists, who are short-term visitors, but also longer-term students who want to study and live here.
"That requires a bit of work and a lot of co-ordination."
That last comment was an understatement - but Cairns has the chance at its fingertips to radically expand its knowledge export industry.
Ms Banks said JCU had already boosted its full-degree recruitment, whereas it previously catered chiefly for short-term students on one-semester exchanges.
It needs to get the word out that Cairns is a serious education destination - a nuance traditional tourism campaigns sometimes undercut.
"We used to call it 'beaches, babes and beer', but parents don't want to invest significant funds in their children to come to Cairns and have a fun time," Ms Banks said.
"They want them to be safe, welcomed and to succeed in studies that will lead to really beneficial career outcomes."
CQUniversity Cairns Associate Vice-Chancellor Jodie Duignan-George agreed tourism messaging could be counter-productive.
"International students invest significant money on their education and the decision about where to study and what to study is one of the biggest decisions in their and their family's lives," she said.
"Words used in tourism messages are not words they associate with a serious study destination.
"The international education sector needs its own messaging that is not tied to tourism and includes affordability of living, the experience and employment opportunities within the destination."
The depth of expansion prospects in international education is nothing new.
The late Bob Norman, then Cairns Chamber of Commerce president, set up a taskforce in 1997 specifically looking at JCU's missed opportunities to attract overseas students.
"The government has said that universities have to get entrepreneurial, they have to make some money by selling their wares to overseas students and frankly in that regard Cairns is missing the boat," he said.
Twenty-three years later, winds of change are finally blowing.
The Cairns Post's dedicated Future Tourism demographer Bernard Salt urged the tourism and education industries to work together.
"Let's not start measuring up with 'my sector is bigger than yours'," he said.
"Let's focus on how to make this mechanism deliver prosperity and resilience for all Far North Queenslanders.
"The focus on international students is right on the money, my Hop, Hop, Home strategy is right on the money, and they're all linked together."
■ 3872 students, including 385 internationals
■ 1423 students, including about 100 internationals