President’s column – 25 September 2020

National Cabinet had two jobs: fight Covid-19 and fight for the economy. Big ticks for item one, but how about the economy, and jobs? There is one obvious sector that needs help.

Tourism, and the local communities that depend upon it, have been badly affected. This is particularly true for those geared for international tourists. And yet, surely we could all do with a holiday to break out of our Covid-constrained humdrum!

The restrictions across state and territory boundaries have cost domestic tourism-dependent local governments dearly since March. But despite the national posturing on the need for free-flowing domestic borders, and recent relaxations, there is no movement on our national border, and that gives little hope to tourism communities beyond the reach of the recent upsurge in localised short holiday trips or “Covid weekenders”.

We may never know the full extent of the impacts that Covid-19 (and the Black Summer bushfires) have had on the tens of thousands of people who work in tourism, a sector that contributes more than $100 billion annually to the economy.

We can get some sense of the losses, however, from Tourism Research Australia’s most recent national visitor survey (for June 2020).

Their snapshot showed that the domestic overnight spend in June of $2.1 billion was down 65 percent, while the number of overnight trips fell 45 percent to 5.4 million. They are astonishing numbers.

For those councils which rely on visitors to sustain their local economies, whether through accommodation, food, events, and festivals, the past few months have been an endurance test made even tougher by not knowing where the finishing line might be.

It is a great opportunity for National Cabinet to develop a national tourism recovery strategy – to prove they can move beyond item 1 (refer above).

Looking back, we have Tourism 2020, a national long-term strategy that aimed to achieve overnight visitor spend of between $115-$140 billion by year’s end but which has been well overtaken by the pandemic.

Sixty-five tourism projects in bushfire-affected councils are about to get funding under the Regional Tourism Bushfire Recovery Grants program, but with the federal Budget still to be delivered, we don’t know if tourism projects in Covid-affected councils will get similar support.

One issue hindering the development of national tourism recovery strategy, as I see it, is the Commonwealth’s long-standing insistence that its responsibilities for supporting tourism do not extend much beyond marketing Australia as a destination to international audiences.

The Federal Government’s muted response this week to a 2018 Parliamentary report examining “opportunities and methods of stimulating the tourism industry in Northern Australia” reflected little enthusiasm for supporting new initiatives and approaches.

Of the 32 recommendations, only four were agreed to, while nine were agreed to “in principle” or “in part”. The remainder were either “noted” or “not supported”.

The almost complete collapse of international travel into Australia has, however, prompted some worthwhile new initiatives at the state government level – including a Tasmanian scheme encouraging islanders to spend within the state to give local tourism and accommodations businesses extra cashflow.

Tassie’s “Make Yourself At Home” voucher scheme giving individuals up to $150 to spend on local accommodation or experiences (with families able to access up to $550 in vouchers) was quickly over-subscribed, suggesting strong pent-up demand for getaways.

A similar voucher scheme in WA – part of the state government’s “Wander out Yonder” marketing campaign – has also proved popular, and, according to Tourism Minister Paul Papalia, future initiatives and incentives are in the pipeline.

An influx of travellers into regional locations will bring opportunities as well as challenges for local governments.

In Western Australia, for instance, trucking companies have complained about campervans taking up space in heavy vehicle rest areas and interfering with drivers’ efforts to comply with fatigue and driving-hours regulations.

Councils that have invested adequately in visitor information centres, signage, and caravan and camping sites – and which collaborate closely with local businesses like farm-stays – will be well ahead of the curve.

So will those that have strategies or destination management plans in place, and that are aware of the changing dynamics of modern tourism and the vast on-shore market that has accrued annual leave but can’t go off-shore for the foreseeable future.

In the absence of a nationally led tourism recovery plan, I recommend local councils:

  • Work with your tourism operators and regional networks to refresh promotion of your local attractions, highways and byways;
  • Spring-clean all your tourism infrastructure;
  • Mentor local businesses to tune up and tune in to the new domestic market; and
  • Walk the talk by making sure your own staff are taking their annual leave and long service leave – and going somewhere!

It will be good for them, your team, and our collective communities.

With international travel unlikely to resume for many months, there’s no reason why local governments shouldn’t be able capitalise on Australians’ willingness to holiday at home.

Do the economy a favour, take a break yourself, you’ve earned it!

David O’Loughlin,
ALGA President