By Kalinga Seneviratne
With over 9.3 million international visitors spending close to $34 billion in Australia last year, Tourism Australia’s executive director Bob East predicted a rosy picture for the county’ tourism sector, in its annual report for 2018-19 released at the beginning of this year. He said the sector has seen “exceptional achievements” in the past year, and thousands of tourism operators are “making a good living from a strong and sustainable industry”.
Even before the rosy report could be properly distributed, the tourism sector came crashing down, when Australia became the first country in the world to seal its borders in January this year. It was just before the peak of the international visitor arrivals during the lunar new year holidays in Asia.
Tourism is Australia’s largest export service industry and the travel industry itself is big business with millions of Australians taking overseas holidays every year. When the strict border closures and local lock-downs took hold, and Australia’s tourist arrivals from Asia, Europe and North America came to a halt, with the aviation industry basically grounded and many travel agents laying off workers and closing shop, there were fears that tourism could suffer a fatal blow.
However, in the short-term locking up the Australian population within its borders has thrown a lifeline to the Australian tourism sector.
Earlier in December, using a rarely used Biosecurity Emergency Law, Australia extended its ban until March 17 next year on citizens going overseas on holidays. Under this ban, Australian citizens and permanent residents cannot leave Australia unless you get an exception from the Department of Home Affairs.
This is only given for official travel, essential business travel or for professionals involved in Covid-19 aid programs. Australia has so far shunned approaches from countries like New Zealand, Singapore and Fiji to create a travel bubble, but, all internal state borders that were closed to stem the second wave of Covid-19 are now opened.
In a media release on December 4, Australia’s Trade, Tourism and Investments Minister Simon Birmingham urged Australians to “gift a holiday” to the domestic tourism sector this Christmas. He asked Australians to help fill the void until international borders re-open and overseas visitors could come. “By visiting a tourist attraction or an experience you will be supporting tourism jobs and also the thousands of tourism businesses across Australia that have done it so incredibly tough this year,” he said.
During the Christmas break, most Australians take a 2–4-week holiday break and millions of them travel overseas to destinations in Asia like Bali and Thailand, and even further away in Europe or the Americas. Every full-time employee in Australia is eligible for four weeks annual leave for every year they work, and under some industry awards, they also get a 17.5% loading on their salary for this period. Thus, having a holiday in December-January is a national pastime.
Australia’s Daily Telegraph flashed a front-page headline “A Complete Sellout” earlier this month saying that hordes of Australian holiday makers forced to spend the Christmas break at home have booked out every available house, room or lodging in some popular coastal towns along the east coast of Australia.
“Accommodation operators could not give away hotel rooms or holiday rentals at the height of the lockdown, but now that we’ve seemingly beaten the pandemic, there is little chance of finding one,” noted the Telegraph, pointing out that prices of accommodation in the coast have shot up by 5 to 10 times, and people are even venturing into the interior to find a holiday spot.
Meanwhile, however, stormy weather and floods in the beach resort areas in Northern NSW and Queensland states have driven a wedge into expected bumper earnings of the tourism sector during the Christmas break. Also the latest outbreak of Covid-19 cases in a Sydney suburb is threatening to derail the tourism industry recovery with state governments mulling reintroducing border restrictions.
Locked inside, many Australians have been venturing into areas to explore their own country. This month (in December), I went to explore the old mining towns of Broken Hill and Silverton in Australia’s outback – where the great Central Australian Desert begin. This inhospitable area is not an attractive holiday destination for the summer where temperatures could go up to between 40-45 degree C from December to February.
Broken Hill is a 12-hour high-speed train journey from Sydney and during the journey fellow travellers Hugh and Erina Littlewood, two Australian retirees said that they have chosen to visit Broken Hill for a holiday because they had to cancel an overseas cruise due to Covid-19. “We have booked a weeklong cruise in South America and a week of travel in that area, but that’s not possible this year,” Hugh told IDN. “We have never been here, even though this is a historic place where the Australian mining industry started.”
Silver was discovered here in the late 1880s and until about the 1990s Broken Hill area was believed to contain the world’s largest deposits of silver, lead and zinc. Most of these are now depleted even though mining still exists here. Known as Australia’s “Silver City” and the heart of the development of the mining industry in Australia, revenue from the mines here was vital to the early development of the nation. Thus, the area is today considered an Australian Heritage, especially the small community of Silverton, 26 km from Broken Hill.
Silverton thrived back in the late 1800s, when mining claims – for silver – were everywhere as new prospectors arrived, with the population peaking at 3,000 in the mid-1880s. Today, it will be a ghost town if not for tourism. The mining boom attributed to Broken Hill in fact started here.
“Early 1900s there were about 300 people now we have 35 people and 4 donkeys …. we run off the tourist industry,” Peter Price, owner of Silverton Hotel told IDN. “We were closed for 9 weeks. When we opened up on June first, within a week we were very busy… we soon had 300 lunchtime meals a day. There were people everywhere, people from Sydney came here to see their backyard.”
Price said when the Covid-19 lockdowns came in March, there was a sense of gloom and doom in the community. But he calls the post-June 2020 tourism revival a “Covid boom”. He said during the winter tourist season from March to November they get about 120,000 tourists, which is the lifeblood of the community. “After November things go quiet, but this year we are still getting tourists,” he said, adding,” they are not international tourists though”.
In recent years, Silverton has also become famous as the location of the Mad Max 2 (a 1981 Australian action movie featuring Mel Gibson) shooting. British migrants Adrian and Linda Bennett set up the Mad Max 2 Museum 10 years ago that exhibits memorabilia including the various vehicles used in the film shoot.
“We used to get a lot of international tourists coming here because of Mad Max,” Linda told IDN, “but that has stopped now.” She said that they were closed for 12 weeks from March because of the lockdown. “March to July is the busiest time here and that took away a lot of our income,” she lamented. But after they reopened in July “it really went berserk” she said with a hearty laugh.
“We have been here for ten years and we had the busiest August and September since we started. We did not have income during the lockdown, then it really went very busy” Linda explained as a group of school children came in with their escorts. “This time is very quiet because of heat, but there are a lot of people coming here. Covid closures have extended our tourist season”.
However, economists are warning that the current boom in domestic tourism would not be sustained once Australia opens its borders for people to go overseas for holidays. It is more of a “spike” rather than a long-term trend warned Regional Australia Institute chief economist Kim Houghton speaking recently on national ABC TV.