TOURISM is an industry that has huge potential to boost WA's regional economic development, according to Regional Australia Institute's recently released Regional Growth Prospects report.
The report identified four key industries - tourism, advanced manufacturing, food processing and creative industries - which pose the greatest opportunities, and tourism was found to have the most barriers restricting growth.
Tourism includes a broad range of occupations, so a successful tourism industry is likely to increase prosperity throughout a wide number of related industries, such as retail, hospitality, transport and recreational services.
Of the four industries covered in the report, tourism was the biggest employer and has grown the most in recent years.
In 2016, there were 221,592 people who were employed in the industry across regional Australia and from 2011-16, regional tourism rose by 18 per cent.
The industry has also increased its proportion of Australian jobs, indicating that employment in regional tourism is exceeding other industries.
The report identified specialised regions where policies and funding can be targeted to have maximum effect.
In WA these regions were along the coastlines of the local government areas (LGAs) of the Kimberley, Geraldton to Exmouth and the South West and South Coast, as well as the Mid West Gascoyne Regional Development Commission (RDC), the larger communities of Augusta-Margaret River and Busselton in the South West RDC, Broome and Denmark.
The report found there to be a high level of tourism spend per resident, meaning there is a greater spend per person released into the economy.
Specialised regions where this was most prominent were the LGAs of Broome and Wyndham-East Kimberley.
The report emphasised that policies that seek to grow the tourism industry need to be specialised to the region.
Some regions might not necessarily be iconic tourism hot spots but are places where tourism is crucial for local employment and job generation.
The report wrote that from a regional development perspective, these are the regions that should have the most impact and job potential.
It said that policies should aim to reduce and/or remove factors at the local level that are constraining growth and these barriers may differ across regions.
The constraining regions were identified as Albany, Broome, Carnarvon, Denmark, Dundas, Esperance, Exmouth, Greater Geraldton, Irwin, Manjimup, Northampton, Shark Bay, Toodyay, Wyndham-East Kimberley and York.
Whereas for regions which are driving tourism, policies should look to catalyse further job growth.
The report wrote that WA's driving regions were Augusta-Margaret River, Busselton, Dardanup, Mandurah, Murchison and Nannup.
One of the most recent success stories of regional tourism was the opening of the Premier Mill Hotel, Katanning.
One of the key individuals behind the opening of the hotel was Dome Café Group managing director and chief executive officer Nigel Oakey, whose motivation behind the project was to increase gross national happiness (inspired by Bhutan King Jigme Singye Wangchuck) for the upper Great Southern through tourism.
"Before we built this hotel, I came to the realisation that we are actually in the community hall business," Mr Oakey said.
"It had me look at the regions, realising that these are towns and places.
"Decades ago the bush communities had institutions like nowhere else and everyone had a connection to the bush - they would go on holiday to the bush.
"I think the focus has been on the task of industry - focussing on yield, mechanisation etc. and the town centres have kind of fallen away.
"The pubs that were once thriving have become sad drinking holes in a lot of places and suddenly the heart that was there had kind of disappeared."
Mr Oakey said that was what drove him to Katanning and he was intrigued by the historical significance of the old mill building in the main street.
"It was the emotional heart of the town, but it was decaying and was at risk of partial or total collapse, according to the engineers that spoke to me," he said.
With no business plan and no concrete evidence that the project would work, Mr Oakey trusted his instinct.
"It was an interesting case with my business partners - we were going to spend a truck load of money and then a truck load more because there is latent demand for this sense of community," he said.
"There is latent demand for old people to once again meet in a place where they see young people."
After the hotel opened, Mr Oakey received some comments from locals that "made me realise we were bang on".
"One was from an elderly lady who said she has seen someone she hadn't seen for three or four years and thought she had passed away, but was probably just sitting around at home," he said.
"And suddenly they were out spending time with one another.
"The other was another elderly woman who said to me 'this place has truly made the town a happier place to live - all of us are happier'.
"So these are the elderly states people who have lived in the town a long time, so their words are wise."
But increasing happiness in the town was only half of the objective - Mr Oakey also wanted to grow tourism in the region.
He realised quality accommodation was essential for increasing tourism in country WA.
"If there aren't quality base camps, you can not make an accurate promise to people that when they put their head on the pillow at night, they will feel good about the day they had," he said.
"How people feel when their head is on the pillow actually defines a large part of their whole experience and if you can't give that to people, then they won't give the town two or three days and spend the time there."