By Kalinga Seneviratne
Australia’s worst summer in living memory has burnt over 18 million hectares. The UN Environments Programme (UNEP) estimates that more than 5,900 buildings including over 2,800 homes have been destroyed as of mid-January. In addition to a death toll of 33 people so far, about one billion animals, and many more bats and insects, are likely to die in total over the coming weeks and months as a result of lost habitat and food sources, says UNEP.
Besides, the bushfires have hit Australia’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry with estimates indicating that the fires have wiped out AUD 2 billion (USD 1.36 billion) from the industry and could take out at least another AUD 4.5 billion (USD 3.06 billion) by the end of the year, according to Sydney-based Australian Tourism Export Council (ATEC).
Australia’s tourism industry has been built on outdoor attractions and many of these have faced the brunt of the bushfires raging across Australia since November 2019. The peak of the summer holiday season here is between Christmas and Australia Day that falls on January 26 when most Australians go on annual holidays to enjoy the great outdoors. This summer many of them had to flee their holiday resorts as bushfires started spreading. Others simply did not take holidays.
This month as a few days of heavy rain across the continent, seemed to have brought bushfires under control, Australian tourism authorities appealed to Australians to visit devastated communities without taking their “eskies” (home-packed food and drinks).
Hazardous smoke engulfing the holiday sites and the damage to many of the facilities has also impacted the travel industry. Australian Tourism Industry Council’s (ATIC’s) executive director Simon Westaway told journalists that though Australia is not immune to natural disasters the media, including the social media coverage “compromising our global brand, has taken this crisis to a new level”.
December-January is peak holiday season not only for Australians, but also for North Americans and Europeans, who visit the warmer climate of the Australian summer to get away from the bitter cold in their home countries. The wide coverage given in those countries to ‘megablaze’ has kept hundreds of thousands of tourists away this summer, which has hurt businesses not only in the bushfire-effected holiday areas, but also in cities like Sydney.
“Several months ago I had very good business from foreign tourists especially from the USA and Germany. This summer my business has dropped to almost nil,” Nishan Varuna of Pocketbook Travel told IDN. He operates unique bicycle tours for visitors in the Sydney Olympic Park area.
“During this period many Australians also like to enjoy the outdoors and I get a hike in my business. But, this year because of the poor air quality issues arising from the bushfires, most Australians have cut their outdoor activities as well,” he added, pointing out that in November at the beginning of the bushfire crisis even the government warned people against exposure to outdoor activity each time the smoke haze reached Sydney. “The media have added fuel to this by fear mongering about air quality and implicated health risks,” he said.
There is no published nationwide data on tourism numbers since the fires took hold in November at the beginning of the Australian summer. Australia attracted 2.71 million holidaymakers the previous summer, and the numbers have been increasing in recent years as many flee the northern hemisphere winter.
Accommodation Association of Australia Chief Executive Dean Long told ABC Radio, “the fires and the smoke have had a real brand and reputational damage in Sydney”. He indicated that hotels in Sydney saw a fall of 10 percent in guest numbers in December.
The decline in tourists arriving in Sydney has also hurt airport transport operators many of whom are of ethnic migrant background. “I used to earn about 1,800 (Australian) dollars a week, now I will be lucky to make 300 dollars in a week,” says Jebal, who has been operating a mini-bus transporting tourists from the airport to their hotels.
Hotels and small businesses in country areas hit by the bushfires are the worst affected by the crisis. Hotelier Jerry Schwarts of ‘The Australia’ said that his luxury resort in the Blue Mountains – a popular holiday area about 3 hours’ drive from Sydney – has seen bookings plummet from more than 95 percent to less than 20 percent. Bushfires have been burning for months in this World Heritage listed area and news about it has spread over social media. “This is the worse summer since the global financial crisis in 2008,” he laments.
Australians have a strong compassionate streak, and there has been an overwhelming response to various bushfire relief funds created across the country to help communities affected by the disaster. Thus, Tourism Australia launched a campaign on January 22 to encourage Australians to throw their support behind Australia’s tourism industry by taking a holiday at home and share their experience with friends and online.
The campaign is supported by an AUD 20 million (USD 13.6 million) government funding boost which was announced as part of an AUD 76 million (USD 51.7) tourism marketing bushfire recovery package. This includes a AUD 25 million international marketing campaign and a AUD 9.5 million International Media Hosting scheme.
“Holiday Here This Year is a practical way that Australians can help bushfire affected communities by filling hotel rooms, restaurants, caravan parks, beaches and more,” Tourism Australia managing director Phillipa Harrison said in a statement announcing the campaign. “That is why we are asking people to commit to holidaying in their own backyard this year, and to spread the word that Australia is ready to welcome more travellers.”
Tourism Australia chief marketing officer Susan Coghill says the campaign message was developed following discussions with tourism operators in fire-affected communities. “When we talked to operators impacted by the bushfires they pretty much all told us that the best way people can help is just to visit, and as soon as possible,” Coghill said in a media statement.
“It’s that simple call to action that underpins Holiday Here This Year, that is tapping into an incredible groundswell of support from Australians who desperately want to play a part in helping these businesses and communities get back on their feet.”