After two years of “Fortress Australia”, the international border is on the cusp of reopening, but Queensland tourism operators predict it will take months or years for overseas visitors to return.
- Fully vaccinated international tourists can enter Australia from Monday
- Queensland tourism providers are predicting a slow recovery
- An estimated 50,000 tourism and hospitality have been lost during the pandemic
From Monday, fully vaccinated travellers can enter Australia without a travel exemption or quarantine requirements.
It’s a highly-anticipated turning point for the embattled tourism sector, but some in the industry fear long-lasting damage to Queensland’s travel brand.
Pre-pandemic Townsville’s Billabong Sanctuary was “swarming with international visitors” wanting to see cuddly koalas and crocodiles.
Today, the empty park tells a very different story.
“We’ve just been hanging on by the seat of our pants,” owner Bob Flemming said.
The federal government’s zoo and aquarium support package has kept the animals fed and healthy, but what the sanctuary desperately needs now is guests through the gates.
“We can see a light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re not popping the champagne corks just yet,” Mr Flemming said.
“I think the end of this year or early next we’ll see our internationals returning, but certainly not in pre-COVID [numbers].
‘Everyone’s been itching to travel’
Australia has shed an estimated 50,000 tourism and hospitality jobs during the pandemic.
For the beleaguered hostel industry, the return of international visitors and backpackers cannot come soon enough.
Two years ago, Base Backpackers on North Queensland’s Magnetic Island was fully booked year-round with a three-month waitlist.
“It was unreal times,” manager Jack Fantini said.
Now, the waterfront business is lucky to have a handful of check-ins a day, but Mr Fantini is optimistic the tide will turn once international travel starts up again.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world at the moment, but the ones that want to get out there and do it will,” he said.
But Mr Fantini admits it’s going to be a “long burn” to get back the business back to where it was before.
“Being realistic, I think it’s still going to be a minimum of six months before we really see those numbers trickle through,” he said.
The pivot to the domestic market
The past two years have forced businesses to hone their focus on the domestic travel market.
It’s been a surprise success story for some, like yacht charter company Pilgrim Sailing.
Owner Clare Ley relocated the business to Magnetic Island at the start of 2020, and since then she and her husband have hired seven new staff members.
“Somehow the local market has really pulled together and kept us going better and better each month, so we’re very blessed,” Ms Ley said.
She views the return of international tourists as a new opportunity for her company, but she doesn’t expect any major changes for two years.
“I feel that we’ll be on a level playing field because everybody’s got to start afresh with that market,” she said.
“I think older ages are going be more reluctant to travel, but I think the younger will probably want to get the hell out of wherever they are.”
In the meantime, Billabong Sanctuary is making changes of its own to cater to the local market.
“On the front cover of our brochure we used to have a koala,” Mr Flemming said.
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