Tourism operators say staff shortages will prevent them from meeting the rush of demand triggered by the federal government’s half-price airfares.
About 800,000 discounted airline tickets will be on offer between April and July as part of a scheme designed to cushion the blow when JobKeeper wage subsidies end on March 28.
But some operators have warned their businesses will be unable to handle the surge in demand, as the pandemic forced many operators to let go of staff and eligible destinations like Airlie Beach in Queensland’s Whitsundays region are traditionally staffed by international backpackers.
Harbour Cove apartments manager Simon Della Santa said it was impossible to attract chefs, kitchen hands, bar staff and cleaners in Airlie Beach and this meant service standards had plummeted.
“Everyone has gone – no one wants to work,” he said.
Mr Della Santa said there were now only two places in town he recommended guests dine at, as the service elsewhere had deteriorated so noticeably.
“Everyone has had to release staff because it’s very quiet, so you can’t have staff on the books giving minimum casual hours. And then in two weeks’ time the place is going to triple in size and there is no one to meet that service demand,” he said.
“So from a broader standpoint, [the scheme’s] just bad for tourism because people are coming and spending money but they’re not getting value.”
His concerns were echoed by Broome hotel owner Michael Leake, who told the ABC that many property owners were already turning away bookings due to a “big staff shortage”.
But Great Barrier Reef tour operator Passions of Paradise founder and managing director Alan Wallish, whose company has been operating for 31 years, struck a more positive note.
He told The New Daily he was confident he would find the extra staff needed to boost operations from four to seven days a week.
“I went through plane strikes, September 11, [the] Ansett collapse, GFC (global financial crisis) – you name it, we’ve been through everything – never with a handout,” he said.
“But COVID is different because literally the tourists just stopped coming and you can’t run a tourism business without tourists.
“We are ready to rock and roll.”
Mr Wallish had 34 staff including casuals before COVID, but now has 18 employees and said he will potentially hire up to 12 more people throughout the year.
“Initially, for a week or two, we’ll be able to carry maximum capacity and that might happen over Easter, but we’re not expecting the numbers to go back to pre-COVID straight away,” he said.
Mr Wallish said in his experience the service standards in Cairns remained high.
“The restaurants and tours that I’m familiar with have all been the same as me – they’ve held on to their key staff so the culture of the companies remains the same, just in a diminished capacity,” he said.
Since the package was formally announced on Thursday morning, industry leaders have ramped up their public pleas for state premiers to abandon harsh border closures now that vaccines are being rolled out.
Tourism Accommodation Australia chief executive Michael Johnson urged the federal government to reopen the borders so international backpackers could return to work in the tourism sector.
“There is an opportunity for us to actually bring some of these working holiday makers back into the country,” he told The New Daily.
“Obviously they would need to have a quarantine program that satisfies that as well but … with our COVID numbers being extremely limited to international returns I think we would be a very attractive destination for our working holiday makers to come back.”
Meanwhile, the federal government’s tourism package has come under fire for excluding the cities, missing out regional areas such as Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour, offering no direct financial assistance to local tourism operators, and for only including one Victorian destination: Avalon Airport.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack defended the government’s choice of eligible destinations during an interview on ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday.
Asked whether the list of destinations was determined by “who complains the loudest”, after Hobart, Adelaide and Darwin were added to the original list, Mr McCormack said it had been put together based on advice from Austrade, which he said had identified areas that would normally be “awash with international tourists” at this time of year.
Mr McCormack said that meant the government could end up spending more on the scheme than the $1.2 billion it announced on Thursday.