Beth Hackney has already bought three travel guides. One for Australia and two for New Zealand. “The second they open up New South Wales, I’m going to be like a rat up a drainpipe,” she says. “I’m going to get in a car and go.”
The Australian lawyer has been living in Hong Kong for years, but has been effectively stuck in home town Sydney since January after coronavirus lockdowns turned a short-term contract into an indefinite stay. The closure of international and state borders has scuttled a lot of travel plans for the 35-year-old: Tasmania. South Korea. New York. Greece. France.
Now, however, after months of not being able to leave the city, Hackney is looking forward to travelling her own country – or state – in earnest.
“I’m actually really excited when things relax a bit to go and see Australia, and New Zealand. And while it isn’t necessarily the travel I had wanted or had planned for this year – it’s not the start of the Tour de France in Nice, it’s not Greece – it’s the travel I’m getting, and the more I think about it, the more excited I am.”
With the anticipation of relaxation of regional, if not state, borders in the near future, there is speculation about what potential there is for a local-led rebound for the hard-hit Australian tourism sector.
Australians already constitute a significant majority of the total tourism market. Between day trips and overnight stays, local tourism was worth more than $100bn last year, and had been growing. International travellers, however, spend $45.4bn, or about third of the total market – a significant shortfall to make up in the event of long-term international border closure.
It is in the nearly $65bn that Australians spent overseas last year that Tourism Australia, and others in the sector, see hope for reviving the now dormant industry. And hope may not be misplaced – polling by the Lowy Institute last week found that 35% of Australians are now less likely to travel internationally than they were before coronavirus, borders open or not.
Some analysts have predicted a net gain for Australia. Richard Clarke, a global hotels and leisure analyst at research firm Bernstein, has calculated that Australia could stand to benefit from a closure of international borders, should the spending of Australian international travellers be redirected to domestic travel.
He says even if 60% of the amount of money Australians spend overseas is instead spent by travelling within Australia – as happened in the UK after Brexit – the total value of spending in the Australian market could end up even.
Tourism Australia is attempting to stoke domestic demand with a significant campaign, which included an hour-long live TV special, Live from Aus, on Channel Ten on Friday night, encouraging Australians to start making plans for travelling locally. They expect travel to pick up slowly, with day trips followed by regional and interstate travel.
Managing director Phillipa Harrison expects people to be keen to get outdoors, explore nature and do things they’ve missed out on, like dining out.
However, even though their own polling suggests that 60% of Australians are keen to travel the country as restrictions ease, Harrison is cautious about assuming the local market will make up for the loss of the international one.
There will doubtless be an increase in domestic travel, she says, but “it can’t fill the gap of international business entirely”.
Dr David Beirman, a lecturer in tourism management at the University of Technology Sydney, agrees that the losses of the year from bushfires, drought and floods, coupled with the continued border lockdown, will be a hole too deep to plug.
“Whichever way you look at it – even if you are the most optimistic person in the world – we’ve already lost several months of travel,” he says. “This year is going to be pretty diabolical, even at the most optimistic assessments.”
However, he says, there is opportunity for tourism to bounce at least partially back. “People will be stir crazy,” he says. “They’re going to want to go somewhere.
“How many people in Sydney go opal mining in Lightning Ridge? Or check out White Cliffs?” he says. “Wine tours in the Hunter Valley. Astronomical Tours in Siding Springs. There’s a whole range of experiences that we probably don’t market as effectively as we could.”
For some tourism and hospitality operators, business is already showing signs of lifting. Luxury resort and spa in the Blue Mountains, Lilianfels, has already started receiving calls for bookings in June and July.
John Fink, the creative director of the Fink Group which includes high-end Sydney restaurants Otto, Bennelong and Firedoor, says many people cannot wait to be able to return to the pleasantries of life. “I’m feeling it,” he says. “But also, when the word went out that they’re going to start easing restrictions our phones just rang off the hook: ‘When are you opening?’ ‘When are you opening?’”
Fink’s restaurants predominantly serve local patrons, but a significant minority of guests – Fink estimates between 10% and 30% depending on the restaurant – are international. He is confident that as people are finally allowed out of their homes, they will be craving nice experiences, particularly ones where they can connect with friends. Those who haven’t been financially affected by the crisis, he says, will have extra money to spend.
“I think Sydney will bounce back,” he says. “As long as everything is safe and everything goes according to plan with the slow easing of restrictions, in the dining scene I can really see Sydney coming back to life.”
However, Australia is not just capital cities and hatted restaurants. The regions, particularly tourist towns, have been battered by back-to-back unprecedented crises this year.
For the Youth Hostels Association Australia, the crisis has decimated business. The network is reliant on international travellers, who make up two-thirds of their guests. The remaining third is dominated by school and business groups. Just 19 of its 70 hostels are open, catering to a far reduced clientele. The backpacker not-for-profit has put nearly all eligible staff on jobkeeper, stood down others and made redundant yet others still. The regional hostels have fared particularly badly.
“We’re basically bunkering down and really waiting for the borders to open,” says the chief executive, Paul McGrath.
While his key market is no longer able to travel to Australia, McGrath is “pretty confident” that domestic travel could make up for the losses of foreign travellers. “People are going to want to get out and get into nature or go to the beach,” he says. “Just get out of their suburbs and cities.”
YHA is hoping that restrictions on regional travel may lift in time for the July school holidays. If border restrictions ease as winter bites in the southern states, he expects a mass migration to holidays north. If so, they will be encouraging people to support the bush, and marketing to families in earnest for the first time. The organisation is in the process of converting small dormitories into family rooms, as a low-cost option for family travellers.
“That’s where I see a great opportunity – to capture the attention of families for whom it may have previously been cheaper to go to Bali or Fiji,” he says.
And, says McGrath, they will be offering discounts to get people back into their accommodation. “We will certainly be price driven.”
Tourism lecturer Beirman says that YHA is not the only tourism operator likely to be offering deals. “If you’re a smart consumer, and you have the money, get in early because there’ll be a whole bunch of special deals going on. Regions, hotels, attractions will want to lure people to come to them and I think there’ll be some very good deals in the short term,” he says.
However, he says, that discounting won’t last, and travel in Australia may become more expensive in the longer term. “A lot of the tourism businesses which have been making no money for months are going to want to fill back the coffers.”
In the meantime, Hackney, who typically has multiple holidays in far-flung destinations a year, is hoping that restrictions are open in time for her parents’ annual holiday to NSW coastal town Forster.
“In the current climate, even something as simple as going to Forster feels like such an immense treat,” she says. Her holidays, she says, will now be slower, more meandering, with a focus on enjoying the things around her. This has been a reset.
“The world has shrunk,” she says. “But not necessarily in a terrible way.”