Australia prepares to welcome back tourists, but operators warn it will be a slow start | Tourism (Australia)

People ascending the Harbour Bridge

The first tourists are on their way to Australia in nearly two years, but tourism operators say it could be more than a year before they truly return to business as usual.

Speaking at Melbourne airport ahead of the international border reopening on Monday, Morrison said flights would begin to ramp up in the coming weeks.

“They can come and we start building once again our very important tourism economy right across the country, from our biggest cities, where I am today, to our far north, Queensland, regional locations and all around the country and the Top End, where I was yesterday, up in Darwin, in central Australia, in Alice Springs,” he said.

“We are going from Covid cautious to Covid confident when it comes to travel.”

While many in the tourism industry say they are hopeful and relieved to see the border opening, they don’t necessarily share the prime minister’s Covid confidence.

“I’m excited but I’m not excited thinking that everything’s going to change tomorrow,” said Deb Zimmer, the chief executive of Sydney Harbour’s BridgeClimb tour company.

“I think it will be heading towards the end of the year before we really start seeing any international tourism volume, and that’s really because we’re a long haul aspirational destination.

“People don’t just plan their holiday to Australia and are hopping on the plane instantly.”

While the US, UK and Europe fall into this “long haul” category, there are a number of key tourism markets closer to Australia, such as China, Japan and New Zealand, that are more likely to be the first to return. But many of these countries have their own travel restrictions to Australia in place that will delay their residents’ down under adventures.

People ascending the Harbour Bridge
The Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb tour company has not seen a substantial increase in bookings yet. Photograph: Loren Elliott/Reuters

According to the prime minister, 56 international flights are expected to touch down in Australia in the next 24 hours, more than half headed for Sydney Airport.

Zimmer said prior to the pandemic, international tourism made up 80% of their market, so the last two years of closed international borders have been “devastating”.

Bookings had not yet increased substantially, Zimmer said.

“We’re not seeing a massive uptick in bookings [yet], because I think what most people do is – their first priority is to visit friends and relatives that they haven’t been able to see. The babies that have been born or whatever it might be … we’re not getting the ‘I’m just here for a holiday and I want to do all the tourists things here’ crowd.”

Although Zimmer fully supports the requirement for all international tourists to be fully vaccinated, she acknowledges that this rule will also have an effect.

“The US I think they’re 65% vaccinated … so we are already cutting down the market that can come here. I understand the reason for it, that’s absolutely fine. But it’s just another little clip of your possible clients.”

In Victoria, the chief executive of Phillip Island Nature Parks, Catherine Basterfield, who runs the famous Penguin Parade, says while they are also expecting a gradual return of international tourists they are still hopeful that next weekend will be noticeably busier than the last.

“Even when the travel bubble with Singapore opened we noticed, notably, quite a large number of Singaporean visitors to all of our sites. So I do expect to see a real [uptake]. It might only be 10% or 20% of our visitation initially, but that’s a large chunk of people over time, and it will grow up,” she said.

“I‘m hopeful that the international student market will come back strongly and will help to support that ‘visiting friends and relatives’ market as well.”

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Executive manager for the NSW Tourism Industry Council, Greg Binskin said jumpstarting the international tourism industry will be dependent on airlines increasing their capacity.

“Many of the airlines are still running on low capacity, but once people can actually make a reservation and get a seat, that will be the dynamic that will start to make the change,” he said.

However, even once flights ramp up, Binskin says there will still be one major piece of the puzzle left: cruising.

“Now is the time for cruises to restart back into Sydney, and have people coming back into Sydney to get on a cruise.”

Zimmer said cruises were “definitely a bit chunk” of BridgeClimb’s business given their proximity to the ships’ docking locations, but even tourism sites that are further removed say the return of cruises will be a major help.

“Cruising was a growing market for Phillip Island,” Basterfield said.

“We’re having really strong bookings still in the hope that the cruise market will continue, so we expect that to be a bigger part of our business going forward.”