Australians keen to make the most of cheap flights and tick the Red Centre off their bucket list are arriving for holidays to find hotel rooms closed and not enough workers available to serve them.
Thousands of tourists are travelling to Alice Springs and Uluru under the federal government’s $1.2 billion half-priced airfare package.
But while surging demand is welcome news for pandemic-stricken businesses, worker shortages are starting to bite, with a Hospitality NT survey revealing there are more than 7000 vacant hospitality and tourism jobs across the territory.
It comes as Australians rush to snap up the government’s half-price air tickets, with more than 75 per cent of the 800,000 one-way flights on offer selling within a month of the program opening, according to official data published on Sunday.
Airlines say many tourists are booking well in advance, setting the stage for worker shortages to worsen heading into June, which is a peak period for Alice Springs as temperatures drop during winter.
The government has boasted that each dollar spent on one of its taxpayer-supported airfares will deliver $10 in spending at the destination, but without enough staff much of this money will go down the drain.
No one to clean hotel rooms
About 80 kilometres east of Alice Springs at the Ross River Resort, which will host upwards of 2000 people for the Wide Open Space music festival this weekend, Lee Donald is feeling the squeeze.
Ms Donald says she would usually have four seasonal workers in addition to the four permanent workers currently running the operation.
The resort has had no luck finding new staff. While posting on Facebook backpacking job boards, Ms Donald says she has seen adverts for locations “all up the Queensland coast and the Gulf of Carpentaria,” looking for staff.
“This year, everyone is needing to advertise, and they’re advertising weekly,” she said.
At Ayers Rock Resort, Central Australia’s biggest tourism operation, just three of the five hotels are open after a $50 million refurbishment project that began in 2020 when the resort was shut down due to COVID-19.
Ayers Rock Resort CEO Matthew Cameron-Smith said last week that the resort was looking for another 150 workers, and a message on the resort’s caller hold function suggests travellers reconsider booking trips to Uluru until after July 15.
Hospitality NT chief executive Alex Bruce said the shortage could cost NT $150 million in revenue and wages.
Mr Bruce said the situation was worse in rural and remote areas, “and it showed over the Easter period in Alice Springs”, where a manager at one of the town’s largest hotels was operating with an “unsustainable” workload for staff.
Another hotel manager was forced to shut rooms because they did not enough housekeeping staff to clean them and make beds in time for fresh guests.
They say they know from private conversations that “other hotels are shutting off rooms” whether they are willing to admit it or not.
‘It’s not just the NT’
Mr Bruce said that “from Tasmania right up to the tip of Cape York, everyone’s got a hospitality workforce shortage now”.
International border closures, which motivated the government to unveil extra support for tourism-reliant regions, has made the problem much worse because the hospitality industry typically relies on working holiday makers.
There are now fewer than 50,000 of those visa holders across Australia after the number plummeted from more than 140,000 at the start of last year.
Ronald Sterry, owner of Ronnie’s Bush House, said at this time of year he would usually be turning away up to “eight people a day” looking for long-term accommodation in one of his hostel’s 22 rooms.
Those backpackers would usually be staying while they worked at hotels, bars and restaurants in Alice Springs.
Governments step in to help, but it’s not enough
About 90 per cent of the 110 businesses that took part in a Hospitality NT survey said they thought a financial incentive to workers from the government would help address staff shortages.
Last Friday the NT government committed $2 million to a ‘”critical worker support package”.
The package is aimed at providing training for local would-be workers and providing $1500 per interstate worker to businesses to help pay for advertising and transport.
But it is limited at 1000 positions across the Territory.
Mr Bruce said that if the industry “could fill all 1000 of those in the next month, that would go some way”.
However, he said that for the industry to fully bounce back, international workers will be needed.
“We’ve got to crack the egg. We’ve got to get these [international] flights and processes up and running,” Mr Bruce said.
He said there could be hope for Central Australian businesses at the Todd Facility in Alice Springs, which has an $18.4 million contract through November 2021.
“I think you’ll actually see the first lot of flights that we can bring in with workers will be down for Central Australia and Central Australian businesses,” Mr Bruce said.
Meanwhile, the federal government has flagged opening up limited travel arrangements for some overseas workers to quell skill shortages before the broader international border opens.
However, much will depend on the progress of Australia’s vaccine rollout, which is currently months behind its original schedule.