OPINION PIECE | KEEPING AUSTRALIA’S BORDERS CLOSED MAY NOT BE A BAD THING

Australians are great travellers. For young people, travelling abroad in their early twenties remains a ‘rite of passage;’ empty nesters joining a river cruise through Europe and people of all ages going for their ‘cheap trip’ to South East Asia are still the dreams of most.

Within tourism, we’ve become dependent on an ever-growing international market for our tourism product at home – especially from China, which provides over a million visitors to Australia a year. But now, with the borders closed and Australians innately driven to travel, what happens if the borders remain ‘closed for the foreseeable future’ as has been suggested by our Prime Minister?

Studies from Bernstein Research (reported in Skift) show Australia may survive quite nicely with a possible increase in overall spend of close to $9 billion and a positive impact on our GDP of 0.6%, making Australia one of the winners from a post COVID – but not open border – business environment.

Tourism Australia is leading the push for Australians to take a ‘staycation’ this year, asking Australians to visit their backyard and explore our amazing country. Each state and territory will jump to push their case and regions will contribute to the momentum of competing interests with potential visitors about to receive some incredible offers and blanket coverage on social media, TV and everywhere.

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Photo: Bendleby Ranges (Advanced Ecotourism certified)

Nature based tourism has the potential to be exactly what this holiday at home market could be looking for. It provides the experience and reassurance that people emerging from an enforced isolation will be seeking. Ecotourism can provide the opportunity to reconnect people with what matters most and in a safe setting. People will shy away from large groups, crowded places and enclosed spaces and they will seek openness, wellness, connection, sustainably managed businesses and the opportunity to just be outside.

“Ecotourism can provide the opportunity to reconnect people with what matters most and in a safe setting.”

Adjusting to this opportunity will be challenging and will require a new approach by many. The tyranny of distance still applies to this huge country: for example, how do we get people to our remote regions with social distancing seeming to put a stop to domestic flights, leaving places like the Kimberley, South Australian Outback and Far North Queensland the domain of grey nomads? How can we afford to run tours with minimal guests, and how do we limit visitor numbers to be COVID safe, despite the forecast increase in demand?

Already we have seen some smart tour operators responding to these challenges by shifting their products to better cater for this domestic focused clientele and building interest and momentum while the lockdowns continue. These include:

  • Exceptional Kangaroo Island, which was badly affected by both the 2019-20 bushfires and COVID-19, conducting weekly live broadcasts on social media and working with agents and wholesalers to reposition their product to the domestic market
  • Sea Darwin launching an online business selling gin and other spirits that tell the stories of the local environment and history
  • King Leopold Air using the downtime to work on improving their business, using the ECO Certification criteria as a guide
  • Phillip Island Nature Parks launching a podcast telling stories of the penguins and locals who look after them to evoke interest in visiting the island
  • Ocean Free and Ocean Freedom focusing on maintenance and polishing paperwork and procedures, ensuring they’ll be ‘fighting fit’ on their return

Different states are taking different paths to reopening and whilst challenges will likely remain for the foreseeable future, our operators are resilient, agile and planning ahead to ensure they build back better for when they can once again welcome visitors.

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Photo: Binna Burra Mountain Lodge (Advanced Ecotourism certified)

There are plenty of reasons to be positive, but it won’t be a return to what was before. We need to be laser focused on what the market will be seeking and understand the crisis has truly shaken Australia, and the world. We can’t afford to pretend this was just an inconvenience and as if by magic it will all just disappear.

There is a real opportunity here. We can rebuild our industry with sustainability at its core, where communities welcome guests because they see the benefit to them; where the true tourism asset – our environment and culture – is protected and valued and where tourism contributes in all ways to the region’s own sustainability. Managing tourism sustainability is just good management and managing for the long-term benefit of all is not just a smart strategy for the recovery from COVID-19, but for the recovery of our planet for generations to come.

 

[Header image: Kimberley Tours (Ecotourism & ROC certified)]