‘Completely dropped off’:Australia’s tourism industry braces for coronavirus crisis
SYDNEY: Ben Woodward has seen some difficult times in the tourism industry, but the Cairns operator says the coronavirus outbreak threatens to beat the lot.
“As an industry, we’ve come through crisis situations before, there’s been Sars, there’s been the GFC, there’s been the pilot strike, but it is looking like one of the worst crisis situations we’ve encountered as an industry.”
Cairns and Port Trips and Attractions has more than 200 staff across its bus tours, nature parks and sanctuaries in far-north Queensland. Woodward, the company’s sales and marketing director, says cancellations started rolling in as soon as the Australian government imposed its ban on non-Australian citizens arriving from China, following China’s own cancellation of international tour groups leaving the country.
“And they kept coming through to the point where the following couple of weeks are supposed to be the busiest weeks for Chinese new year, and it’s just completely dropped off,” he says. “Anywhere from 40% to 60% down (on last year).”
Ratings agency S&P has said it will deliver a big but temporary blow to China’s economy that will spill over to the whole world, while the Reserve Bank of Australia chief, Philip Lowe, has warned the coronavirus will do more harm to Australia’s economy than the 2003 Sars outbreak.
The tourism industry is expected to be among the worst hit.
The Queensland premier, AnnastaciaPalaszczuk, told state parliament last week the Cairns region alone had already lost $200m in bookings, and Gold Coast operators were expecting to lose $400m.
The chief executive of Destination Gold Coast, Annaliese Battista, says China is the Gold Coast’s largest international market, and injects about half a billion dollars into the economy, with a peak around lunar new year.
She says the bushfires had already led to a softening in the market, and once China banned group bookings, individuals also started to cancel.
“Our large accommodation service providers, and we have 34,000 rooms on the Gold Coast, coming back off a bumper 2019, we are seeing about a 15-20% cancellations across our accommodation sector, and obviously Chinese businesses with a high level of exposure … are feeling the pinch,” she says.
“Some of them are telling me there’s about a 50% drop-off in bookings, and the irony is there’s a bit of a reflexive panic, fear type thing among other international markets.”
Battista says it will be the small mum-and-dad businesses that will suffer the most.
“Of the 3,500 tourism operators we have on the Gold Coast, the vast majority are those small- to medium-size operators.”
Woodward says there has also been a flow-on effect to tourists from other Asian nations such as South Korea and Japan, and other parts of the world.
“We are also starting to see cancellations from western groups as well, so groups from the UK and North America cancelling bookings directly because of coronavirus,” he says.
Operators hope a domestic marketing campaign can make up the shortfall, but they have also called on the Queensland government to immediately suspend state fees and charges until the coronavirus crisis is over. The state government in turn wants the federal government to extend disaster relief payments to businesses badly hit by the outbreak.
The latter will need to be approved by all states and territories, which are not due to meet on the matter until April.
It is not just Queensland feeling the pinch. Terry Smit, the managing director of Bunyip tours in Victoria, says he has seen a number of cancellations from agents focused on the Chinese market.
“I wish I could forecast the future, but for right now we’re shortening some of our casual shifts, and our reservation staff are being told to come in later or go home earlier if there’s not much to do.”
The long-term impact, he says, would be casual staff looking for other jobs, meaning fewer experienced tour guides.
“You can’t just turn the tap on when you need more tour guides or reservation staff. It takes time. And good tour guides don’t grow on trees.”