Can Australian tourism survive without international visitors?

Willie Creek pearl farm in Broome. Source: Shutterstock
Willie Creek pearl farm in Broome. Source: Shutterstock

Australians have a reputation as great travellers. In 2017 we made over a million visits each to the three most popular destinations: New Zealand, the United States and Indonesia.

However, the past 18 months have put a bit of a dent in those travel ambitions. There was that New Zealand travel bubble, but it only lasted a little over 3 months before it was shut down in July due to the increased risk of the Delta variant of COVID-19 and the Sydney outbreak which has now spread across regional NSW.

In the absence of overseas travel, anecdotally Australians have taken up the opportunity to be tourists in their own backyards with gusto, supported by various state-funded schemes to incentivise residents to get out and about.

NSW had its Dine and Discover vouchers, now extended until 2022 due to the current COVID-restrictions. The ACT had its ChooseCBR vouchers whilst Victoria offered a rebate for those travelling in regional areas.

Due to the rescheduling of the Ekka in Brisbane, Queensland has declared a one off public holiday, dubbed the Peoples Day to encourage residents to get out and support local businesses and tourism operators.

The support has been welcomed, and certainly there have been tales of regional areas experiencing unprecedented local tourism but can it offset the loss of international tourism?

Well the short answer is no. Despite the occasional flurry of activity around events such as the Dubbo Show, long weekends and school holidays tourism has struggled.

The problem is that even with the best of intentions Australians cannot fill the gap left by the lack of international tourists. And it is stark.

Year on year data from the ABS shows international arrivals are down by up to 98.4%. So what is to be done?

Well, despite the New Zealand travel bubble being in a temporary hiatus there are ongoing talks with other nations to create a regional bubble.

And as previously mentioned, domestic travel has surged with Australians taking the opportunity of international restrictions to tick off their homegrown bucket lists.

In the meantime, many tourism operators have had to adapt or diversify their offerings. Boutique and craft food and beverage operators have discovered the benefits of online sales and co-operatives to assist in the sales of goods developed for cellar and farmdoor sales to tourists.

Campaigns, originally started to support business hit by the bushfires of 2019-20 have been ongoing. These include: Buy from the Bush, Fill Your Esky, Visit Regional.

Others have looked to expand their appeal, with regions known for being the winter playground of Sydneysiders focusing on the appeal of a summer visit. The Snowy Mountains will be holding an April cycling event which is hoped will bring in $4 million over 5 years and will build on the increased interest in the sport.

The benefits of turning seasonal tourism into a year-round prospect will hopefully also improve the prospects for regional hospitality businesses struggling to find staff.

Others are focusing on regional events which are generally escaping the harsh restrictions faced by capital cities such as Melbourne and Sydney. The Big Red Bash in Birdsville has announced that attendees will be required to show proof of a COVID vaccine in order to attend.

Regardless of how tourism providers adapt we can only hope that the sector continues to innovate to survive and offer us all the opportunity to have our own getaways as and when restrictions allow.

Race to the Regions is an ACM series highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on regional Australia.

This story Been on holidays recently? first appeared on The Canberra Times.