Jason Cronshaw runs bus tours in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains and normally has six hop-on, hop-off buses on the road over December and January, but not this summer.
“During some of those days we only ran one bus and that was really just to try and ensure we were still out there servicing the people that were coming out, but we really were running on very few people,” Mr Cronshaw said.
His family has run the Fantastic Aussie Tours business for more than four decades.
“In 45 years I have never seen any sort of downturn like this,” he said.
The images of the Australian bushfires that were beamed across the world elicited international sympathy and donations but deterred holidaymakers.
Even before the Blue Mountains was directly threatened, the tourism downturn began.
“The first cancellation the Blue Mountains received was in September last year, when the fires started on the north coast [of NSW] and that was international travellers who didn’t come to Australia,” Mr Cronshaw said.
“There’s a hotel in Mount Victoria that had a wedding cancel for October 2020 and that was just because of the fear of the fires.”
More than five months on from the first bushfire-induced cancellations, the coronavirus outbreak now threatens to derail the recovery.
“There are a few [Blue Mountains] operators who certainly are involved directly with the Chinese market, such as Scenic World, and they’ve had immediate cancellations for group business going forward,” Mr Cronshaw said.
‘Shutdown crisis’ looms amid outbreak uncertainty
In the Sydney suburb of Epping, Jane Yuan’s travel agency is busily fielding phone calls, but they are not new bookings.
Instead, Ms Yuan and her colleagues are assisting customers who are stuck at airports in Beijing and Shanghai due to flight cancellations.
“Everyone is frustrated. I just spoke to Qantas staff and they are very frustrated as well because they don’t know what is going to happen,” she said.
Ms Yuan estimates that 40 to 50 per cent of her revenue comes from Chinese tour groups visiting Australia, which the Chinese government has reportedly banned from leaving the country, turning off the tap on Australia’s biggest inbound tourism market.
That’s in addition to federal government restrictions, blocking entry to many people who have transited through mainland China, and airlines suspending flights.
“For my tour groups, I’ve cancelled my restaurant bookings, I’ve cancelled my hotel bookings, air ticket bookings,” Ms Yuan said.
“I know people who work on this street from the restaurants, they have already been retrenched … it’s worries going around the Chinese market.”
Of the 9.3 million tourists that visited Australia last year, 1.4 million were from China, spending an average of $9235 per trip and $12.3 billion in total, according to Tourism Australia.
“From an international tourism perspective, for many businesses I think this is already a crisis,” said Margy Osmond from the Tourism and Transport Forum.
“When we’re not getting any Chinese visitors virtually, that’s a very substantial impact every month and for as long as this goes on, and potentially even after, because we’ll have to reconstitute the relationships and the marketplace.”
Ms Yuan is concerned that it may not take long for some of her industry colleagues to go under.
“They’ve still got, like us, American Chinese visitors to come, Hong Kong people to come, Malaysian visitors to come, but the proportion of these guests is only about 20 to 30 per cent of the whole groups going.
“For example, a coach is going for 35 seats at full capacity but now you’re only running about seven seats … but how long can they carry on this business?
“If this issue is carried on for another two or three months, a lot of businesses like ours are probably going to face a shutdown kind of crisis.”
‘I definitely wouldn’t be taking on extra debt’
Domestic tourism operators in bushfire-affected regions have already faced a similar crisis this summer and do not yet know if they have made it through.
Nicole McDonald manages holiday rentals in Batemans Bay on the NSW south coast.
A number of properties she manages in the town of Rosedale were lost in the fires, and she spent the New Year period making sure guests had evacuated to safety and dealing with power outages, cancellations and refunds in the aftermath.
“We’ve just done the figures and we’ve lost 60 per cent of our yearly income,” Ms McDonald said.
Ms McDonald looked into the support available to small businesses such as hers, which have not had direct property damage.
Although she found she might be eligible for an interest-free loan, it is not an offer she intends to take up.
“I definitely wouldn’t be taking on extra debt … holiday income is obviously quite variable anyway and with no guarantee of people booking for the future, definitely, definitely wouldn’t be doing that.”
Small businesses struggle to keep on staff
Nearly 200 kilometres south of Batemans Bay, the town of Eden was hit as the Border fire moved north from Victoria.
Weeks later, a normally packed caravan park was instead nearly empty, with only a few holidaymakers and permanent residents occupying cabins.
Discovery Parks Eden is part of the G’Day Group, founded and run by Grant Wilckens, who travelled to Eden to meet staff in the wake of the bushfires.
“We’ve got several parks that have got scorched forest and bushland – we’re very, very lucky,” he told ABC News, surveying the burnt trees and vegetation that come right up to a firebreak at the park’s perimeter.
The G’Day Group has 280 parks across the country, giving it the scale and the geographic diversity to withstand the summer disaster, with some return customers forgoing a refund in favour of credit towards next summer’s holiday.
“The good news is there’s another January. It comes again next year,” Mr Wilckens said.
“The reality is, a lot of the smaller businesses, this is the one month where they make most of their money.”
Mr Wilckens said his business was able to continue paying casual staff who did not receive work due to park closures.
However, many smaller operators in fire-affected areas have had to lay off employees.
In the coastal town of Merimbula, north of Eden, Simon Millar’s whale watching and boat tour business has managed to keep on its permanent staff, but has not had shifts available for casuals.
“I know from speaking to a number of other businesses in the town that there’s huge amounts of people who have no longer got a job,” Mr Millar said.
Job losses mean less disposable income to be spent back in the town, which is relying on more local trade until tourists return.
“The Australia Day long weekend was a really busy weekend for us … still not nearly at the levels that it normally is, but it’s good to see people definitely start to come back down here,” Mr Millar said.
He is hoping international tourists will not be deterred from heading down the coast during the next whale-watching season, after smoke made it difficult to spot whales at the tail end of last season.
As tourism and social media campaigns encourage Australians to holiday in fire-affected towns that are back open for business, Ms McDonald is hoping for a strong Easter period in Batemans Bay to help her business.
“We’ll see how the next couple of months go, if we can trade out of it or not.”