Space shuttles and submarines – the next frontiers of tourism?

Currently, tourism is looking upwards. Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic are preparing to take to space after years of hype.

It’s thought that the first flight will be launched within the next year. Passengers will pay hundreds of thousands dollars a pop to experience zero gravity, to see the Earth from a completely new perspective, and to find themselves closer than ever to the stars.

(‘Stars’, in this case, refers not only to the far-flung, shining space objects, but also to the likes of Kate Winslet, Brangelina, Katy Perry, Ashton Kutcher and Leonardo DiCaprio, all of whom are rumoured to have space trips lined up for the not-too-distant future.)

But while the tourism industry is looking upwards, could they be neglecting what lies below?

It’s no secret that humans love the ocean. We’re fascinated by (and, at times, fearful of) dolphins, fish, sharks, whales and other animals that live underwater. The Little Mermaid was a huge hit back in the 1989, and Sofia Ford Coppola is re-making the classic as you read this. Millions of us make annual summer pilgrimages to spend a week or two in close proximity to the water, and swimming remains a key source of enjoyment an exercise for broad swathes of the Australian population. Diving’s pretty popular, too.

space-virginGiven this clear fondness for water and its various attractions, then, it’s not nonsensical to suggest that the tourism industry would do well to place more of an emphasis on ocean-based activities.

One aspect of this new strategy could be an investment in submarine tourism.

In 1966, The Beatles sung happily about living in a yellow submarine. While we’re not sure we’d like to spend such a big expanse of time underwater, perhaps it would be quite pleasant. At the very least, Ringo Starr – lead vocalist on ‘Yellow Submarine’ – has lived arguably the most untroubled, contented life of the Famous Four.

In a more modern, Australian context, submarine tourism could be put to use in multiple locations. For one thing, there’s an awful lot of stuff beneath the surface of Sydney Harbour. Some of it’s beautiful, some of it’s gross, some of it’s historically significant and some of it’s boring – but there’s certainly enough material to warrant exploration on the part of tourists.

Perhaps more obviously, submarine services would surely do a roaring trade around the Great Barrier Reef. The coral, the flashy-coloured fish and the stunning underwater ecosystems in which they live make the Reef one of the world’s premier natural drawcards. Of course, the ability of submarines to traverse the Reef could be impacted by legislation, and visibility could be impact by recent, controversial dredge spoil dumping allowances. In theory, though, there would certainly be a market.

Submarines already have a wide range of uses. They have a well-known history of navy usage, and can also be valuable for the research of marine scientists. Outfits such as Neptune Marine Services (which sounds part-Branson, part-underwater, but is resolutely the latter) use them for things like underwater maintenance, repairs, manufacture, engineering and stabilisation. They’re clearly fairly versatile, then. Passenger submarines companies do exist, but they operate almost exclusively out of the US, leaving a gaping hole in the Antipodean market.

Who knows? Perhaps submarine tourism could be Mr. Branson’s next big project. Once he’s back from space, that is.

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