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Operators adapt in the face of closed international borders

By Ray White Whitsunday

THE coronavirus lockdowns have literally decimated Australian tourism enterprises, with desperate businesses struggling to stay afloat with one tenth of the customers they served in pre-COVID times.

Keith Robert’s travel agency is a perfect example.

Sailing Whitsundays owner Keith Roberts said when coronavirus hit and borders were slammed shut, the industry was “100 per cent shut down”.

“We were just bleeding money as bank accounts got completely drained,” he said.

When restrictions were eventually relaxed and businesses began to take to the water again they were faced with the prospect of competing in a Queensland-only market.

Mr Roberts said pre-COVID, the industry was about 90 per cent capacity but many now carried about half the number of travellers they could.

“You can see products that won’t survive, and you just know they won’t,” he said.

The challenges of closed borders meant many businesses were forced to pivot into the domestic market.

Among these operators was owner of Apollo Whitsundays Rick Mark who said before the pandemic, “99.9 per cent” of tourists on his tour were from overseas.

Apollo Whitsundays owner Rick Mark had remarketed his tours to cater to the Australian market. Picture: Laura Thomas

With no sign of international borders opening soon, Mr Mark hatched plans to shorten his two-night tour as well as marketing a new open water scuba diving accreditation trip.

“The Aussies like the dive courses,” he said.

“They would prefer to go overseas and do a really cheap course in Bali so we’ve come up with a really strongly priced course where they can do it on an overnight boat in Australia.

“The old days are gone, if you keep doing what you were doing before COVID, you’re not going to survive.”

Travel Associates Mackay owner Debbie Rains said her business was also looking to reinvent itself and take advantage of new opportunities.

Last week, they launched a charter direct to Uluru in a bid to give residents a change to travel despite the pandemic.

“Australians are really avid travellers, they love to travel, and we know that when the borders reopen people will be chomping at the bit to get travelling again,” she said.

Travel Associates Mackay owner Debbie Rains is offering an Uluru Weekend Adventure with direct flights from Townsville. Picture: Shae Beplate

“A lot of the operators that we’ve dealt with in the past … they’ve now included a lot more Australian product into what they’re putting together.

“They’re all pivoting to offer products for where we can go.”

A similar pattern of decimation, decline and business pivoting is occurring along every step of the tourist journey.

The taxi you once took to the airport? There are now far fewer on the roads, thanks to COVID-19.

Once you get to the airport, once-bustling retail precincts in terminals now sit eerily silent.

And once you board a plane, you are likely to be greeted by a cabin attendant working a fraction of the hours they used to – and in some cases making extraordinary sacrifices to do so.

Virgin Australia Cabin Attendant Tracey Fitzgerald said she recently worked a 30-hour week in Queensland.

It was the most she had worked since March, but it also required five full days spent in hotel quarantine, as she is from Melbourne.

Colleagues from Perth and Adelaide were able to move about freely, but all Victorian staff had to put up with the quarantine – a rule she said made her feel “segregated”.

“But I loved being at work. People were enjoying the flight,” she said.

Virgin Australia cabin supervisor Tracey Fitzgerald

During the lockdown period, Ms Fitzgerald said she had completed a TAFE course in workplace training and assessment, and started up a side hustle in candle making.

“It’s not brought in a lot of income, but it’s kept me busy,” she said.

Big organisations have had to be just as nimble.

Shangri-La Sydney general manager Philippe Kronberg said with no international arrivals, the hotel had tried to make the most of a “staycation” market.

“We’ve had a lot of guests on weekends; lots of birthdays and engagements and wedding anniversaries,” Mr Kronberg said.

“Guests who have been confined in their apartments come here and really enjoy the hotel. They want to have a no-hassle time with us.”

The decimation seen in other parts of the tourism industry also hit the Shangri-La, with occupancy rates plunging from a full house in February to single digits just weeks later.

“It’s still pretty tough; we’re not out of the woods yet,” Mr Kronberg said.

“Demand is pretty strong, but mostly on weekends and holidays.

“It’s still tough during weekdays because we don’t have that corporate market.”

Pictured at the Shangri-La Hotel restaurant at the Rocks in Sydney is Hotel General Manager Philippe Kronberg. The restaurant has adhered to the new spacing rules due to COVID-19 restrictions. Picture: Richard Dobson

The recent opening of South Australia’s borders had been a positive, he said, while inquiries from other states were also picking up as border openings moved closer to reality.

“The Sydney New Year’s Eve fireworks are huge for us. We’re expecting to be full, although it will likely be all Australians,” Mr Kronberg said.

Cairns-based reef tour operator Alan Wallish said he and two other companies had come to an arrangement early during the lockdown to take their boats out on different days.

“It’s been a great initiative,” he said.

“It’s meant that passengers can always find a boat running to the reef and it means we’re not fighting each other to find passengers.”

Mr Wallish said his boat Passions of Paradise carried 31,000 people out to the reef in 2019, but business was down 70 per cent this year. A staff of 35 was now down to 18.

The opening of Queensland’s borders in July led to “an instant surge in numbers, but then the border closed and those numbers disappeared,” he said.

“You can’t run a tourism business with no tourists. We need Australians to come up to Cairns and have a wonderful time.”

Despite the grim year, Mr Wallish said morale among his team was “fantastic”.

“We’re out to survive,” he said. “I’ve been really proud of my staff. We’ve lifted the game to the highest possible standards.

“Everybody is working hard in Cairns. We’re all in this together.”

With Australian tourism facing its biggest-ever test, that spirit of co-operation between operators may be the one thing that pulls them all through.

Source: Whitsunday Times

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