Where people move and when: temporary population mobility in Australia.

Author:Charles-Edwards, Elin


Australia's population is conventionally characterised as spatially concentrated, highly urbanised and oriented towards the coast.(1) Seldom acknowledged are the more ephemeral aspects of Australia's population geography, such as the annual surge of people to coastal towns during the summer months or the constant chum of temporary workers throughout the interior. Yet the magnitude of these movements is extraordinary. For instance, almost one million Australians, one person in 20, were away from their place of usual residence on the night of the 2006 census. Over the year as a whole, Australians aged 15 and over spent over 285 million nights away from home.(2)

This constant flux of population has diverse and far-reaching implications. It alters the demand for goods and services at both origins and destinations: for water and energy, for housing, for food and consumables, for roads and parking, for rubbish collection. It impacts on fragile ecosystems and contributes to local environmental pressures. It calls for careful, targeted planning on the part of business and service providers, such as police and health care. In some cases it can place considerable financial burdens on local communities, especially in destination regions.

Australia's official population estimates, based on a usual residence concept, are deliberately framed to exclude visitor movements. Yet the significance of these temporary population flows and counter-flows is now widely recognised, not only in Australia(3) but in North America(4) and elsewhere.(5) The result is a small but rapidly growing literature concerned, not only with understanding the volume and spatial pattern of these movements, but with developing a new form of estimates that encompasses the whole of the population requiring services at any given time in a particular locality or region.

This paper aims to advance that agenda by examining the geography of temporary population mobility in Australia using data from the Australian national vistor survey (NVS). In contrast to the census, the NVS is implemented as a continuous survey, thereby providing more detailed information on the timing of population movements, as well as their spatial pattern. Despite its longstanding availability, this source of information has received surprisingly little attention outside the tourism community. Here, we use these data to explore the continually shifting feast that is temporary population mobility in Australia, focusing both on variations in intensity over time, and their changing spatial distribution. Data are resolved by purpose of trip--tourism, business, and visits to friend and relatives--to explore the reasons for the observed variations in the timing and spatial distribution of moves.

Drawing these findings together, we then sketch a geography of temporary population mobility in Australia, as the first step in moving beyond conventional population estimates.


Temporary population mobility has long been part of Australia's cultural and economic landscape. While the circulation of Aboriginal Australians and of the folkloric swagmen were the early embodiments of this mobility, contemporary forms of temporary population mobility are highly varied--ranging from short-term tourist mobility, through the cross-country circuits of elderly grey nomads,(6) to the work-related mobility of fly-in fly-out miners. (7) Not everyone has a fixed abode, but common to all measures of temporary movement is the assumption that each individual has a place of usual residence.

For the purpose of this study, we define temporary population mobility to encompass those moves of at least one night in duration that do not entail a change in usual residence. (8) This definition is consistent with previous studies based on data from the census, although the collection procedures used for the NVS result in the exclusion of some groups.


In comparison with permanent migration, temporary population mobility remains poorly served by conventional statistical collections. The NVS is a dwelling-based survey that has operated on a continual basis since 1998 and therefore provides a unique perspective on this form of movement. The survey currently samples approximately 120 000 Australians aged 15 and over (up from 80 000 in 2004) with interviewing spread throughout the year. (9) Respondents are questioned on their domestic travel behaviour (both day and overnight trips) over the previous four weeks with information sought on a range of topics including duration, timing and frequency of movement, the origin and destination(s) of travel, and purpose of trip. The basic unit of temporary population mobility in the NVS is the overnight trip, defined as travel involving a stay away from home...

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