QUEENSLAND: About this time of year, the weather in tropical north Queensland takes a turn towards glorious. Last Saturday in Cairns would have made a postcard, had any tourists been in town to experience the onset of the dry season.
Hotel occupancy rates in Cairns have fallen to single digits and most tourism businesses have closed their doors – some forever – as the region’s lifeblood industry is brought to a standstill by coronavirus travel bans and other restrictions. The local tourism lobby estimates losses of about $2.5bn and 11,000 jobs this year.
“It’s eerie around town, the weather is beautiful but no one is around,” dive instructor and singer Tanya Murphy told Guardian Australia. “I’ve lost both my jobs and everyone I know in the tourism industry is in the same situation.”
At Port Douglas, the smaller resort town to the north of Cairns, the experience of the shutdown is more acute; most of the cafes and restaurants up and down Macrossan Street have closed.
At Airlie Beach, the mainland hub for the Whitsunday islands, dozens of tour boats are now permanently moored at the harbour jetty. Many tour operators say they’re still paying full price for berthing fees, premises rentals and insurance.
“Shutdown is almost putting it too politely,” says Tony Fontes, a semi-retired dive instructor from Airlie Beach.
“No boats at all on the Great Barrier Reef coast are running out to the reef. Towns are shut down, restaurants are shut down, hotels are shut down – either because of the restrictions or because of a lack of people. Obviously with international air travel closed, there’s just no people in town; even backpackers aren’t there.
“You can walk down the middle of Main Street without any risk of being hit by a car. I’ve been here since ’78 and of course it was a much smaller town, but I’ve never seen it like this.”
The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, told ABC News Breakfast on Tuesday that any moves to reopen the domestic tourism market would be “negligent”.
“I know that tourism operators are struggling, Cairns is a tourism industry megacentre,” Palaszczuk said.
“We can’t open up tourism, it would be absolutely negligent to open up tourism when we are flattening the curve. We don’t want to give any false sense of hope [to people] that suddenly there is going to be planes flying in the sky in the next two months and tourism is going to be back to normal because we are in a world pandemic.”
Most tourism operators and industry groups in north Queensland acknowledge that a restart is not a quick fix, and that the region’s reliance on international tourists and the Great Barrier Reef means the recovery will likely be slower than other regions, with short, medium and longer-term challenges.
“We will be one of the last destinations to recover and estimate that the region will lose at least $2.5bn in visitor expenditure which is 15% of our gross regional product in 2020,” Tropical North Tourism’s chief executive officer, Mark Olsen, said.
“The region received more than $200m worth of cancellations in March with the impact to the end of April estimated at $500m in lost visitor spend.
If we don’t do everything we can to bring the reef back to its former state, then our economy is not going to be very well off even after things return to normal
“(We were) the first region in Queensland significantly impacted as the Chinese stopped travelling over Chinese New Year – the peak travel time for our largest international market.”
Tourism operators say international coverage of Australian bushfires, though nowhere near Cairns, also deterred some travellers.
Nikki Giumelli, who runs Cairns jet boat tour business Bad Fishy, said the situation became “very concerning” about mid March.
“At this point in time all our boats are tied up and unable to be used,” Giumelli said. “It’s very quiet down on the waterfront and it would usually be bustling.
“We’ve got a beautiful destination that’s well positioned for a domestic recovery once the conditions are right for that to happen. But there are quite a few hurdles to get there. You would be negligent to think this is something that’s going to be solved quickly. We may take longer than other regions to recover.
“We’re fed by the aviation sector, the tourism sector. There’s an anxiety sitting there about when a trickle of reasonable business will return. There are many businesses that are very good at what they do, but it’s really difficult and it’s uncharted for many business owners to hibernate their business. There’s a real concern that not everyone will survive this even if they hibernate.”
For most international tourists who have come into Cairns and beyond, the Great Barrier Reef has always been the most significant drawcard. It consistently ranks as the top reason for foreign visitors.
While the coronavirus situation poses an immediate and severe threat to the industry, some worry the recovery might also be hampered by the climate damage occurring to the reef, which has suffered its third mass bleaching in five years.
One quarter of the Great Barrier Reef suffered severe bleaching this past summer in the most widespread outbreak ever witnessed.
Murphy, who is the coordinator of Divers for Reef Conservation, said economic stimulus to support the tourism industry to recover needed to be matched by commitments that supported the sector in the long term, including action on climate change.
“Everyone I know in the tourism industry, hundreds of people, are in the same situation as me at the moment. If we don’t do everything we can to bring the reef back to its former state, then our economy is not going to be very well off even after things return to normal.”
Fontes said he thought some tour operators who may be considering whether to re-establish their businesses after the coronavirus outbreak “may be discouraged by the health of the reef and think it’s all too hard”.
“I do talk to my dive mates up in Cairns, and they are talking of ghost towns in Port Douglas and Cairns as well,” Fontes said.
“I wish we could take lessons from what the government is doing in fighting the pandemic … they’ve turned the economy on its head and shown what can be done when it’s required.
“And it’s just unfortunate people don’t look at climate change and the future impacts of that as they do about pandemic. It’s just a slow-motion disaster that doesn’t startle people into action. But it is possible to move mountains when you want to.”