Australians are being encouraged to enjoy some of the country’s most luxurious holiday spots and take advantage of cheap, government-subsidised flights in coming months, but some tourism operators warn the state of the industry means guests shouldn’t expect VIP treatment during their stay.
The federal government is offering 800,000 discounted airline tickets to go on sale between April and July this year as part of a scheme designed to cushion the blow to the tourism industry when JobKeeper wage subsidies end on March 28.
Remote destinations like Airlie Beach in Queensland’s Whitsundays region are traditionally staffed by international backpackers but that labour source has dried up as Australia’s international borders remain closed.
Harbour Cove apartments manager Simon Della Santa said it was impossible to attract chefs, kitchen hands, bar staff and cleaners in the region and this means service standards have plummeted.
“Everyone has gone – no one wants to work,” Mr Della Santa said.
Mr Della Santa said there were now only two places in town he recommends guests dine at because the service had gotten so bad.
“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 it’s just bad for tourism because people are coming and spending money but they’re not getting value.”
But not everyone in the industry shares Mr Della Santa’s concerns.
Great Barrier Reef tour operator Passions of Paradise founder and managing director Alan Wallish, whose company has been operating 31 years, says he is confident he will find extra staff needed to boost operations from four to seven days a week.
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“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 hand-out,” Mr Wallish 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.”
Pre-COVID, Mr Wallish had 34 staff, including casuals, and now has 18 employees. He says 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.
He said in his experience the service standards in Cairns remain high.
“The restaurants and tours that I’m familiar with have all been the same as me – they’re held on to their key staff so the culture of the companies remains the same, just in a diminished capacity,” he said.
Tourism Accommodation Australia chief executive Michael Johnson urged the federal government to reopen the borders so international backpackers can 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,” Mr Johnson said.
“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.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the half-price airfares would help Australians support tourism operators, businesses, travel agents and airlines doing it tough during the pandemic.
“This is our ticket to recovery,” Mr Morrison said.
“This package will take more tourists to our hotels and cafes, taking tours and exploring our backyard.”
Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, the Tasmanian towns of Launceston, Devonport and Burnie, Broome in Western Australia, Avalon near Melbourne and Merimbula in NSW are also included in the airfare plan.
The federal government’s $1.2 billion package also includes support to keep 8600 international aviation workers employed between April and the end of October, the earliest chance for flights overseas to resume.
In return, airlines will need to assure the government every month planes will be ready to take off when needed.