It’s the end of the beginning of the pandemic. For those working to revive Australia’s near-dead tourism industry, it’s the start of a long, hard slog. By Katrina Lobley.

Road map to domestic tourism recovery

More secluded and small-group destinations such as Tasmania’s Picnic Island may be among the first to recover from the Covid-19 crisis.
More secluded and small-group destinations such as Tasmania’s Picnic Island may be among the first to recover from the Covid-19 crisis.
Credit: Carmel Boyd

The first green shoots are sprouting in Australia’s pandemic-battered and burnt tourism landscape. Following March’s panic and April’s lockdowns, during which several Australian states and the Northern Territory hardened borders to operate almost as separate countries within a country, May brought welcome signs of revival.

Some of us are eyeing near horizons, looking at whatever easy-to-reach getaways are permitted within the latest government guidelines. On Wednesday, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced regional travel could resume on June 1. South Australia is actively encouraging residents to explore their own state. West Australians are searching for local holidays by the seaside, with travel booking site Wotif reporting interest in Busselton on a recent Sunday up by nearly 480 per cent on the previous four Sundays. Darwin is forging ahead with this year’s street art festival – the event that’s given the tropical capital its drawcard high-rise murals. On the Gold Coast, the Yatala Drive-In is open. Slowly but surely, we’re easing from crisis to recovery.

State and regional destination organisations have done what they can, via unusual types of hype, to stay top of mind at the height of the restrictions. Australia’s Golden Outback offered five West Australians the chance to win four hours of research on their goldfields ancestry. Since Easter, Destination NSW has dispatched artisanal chocolates, gin, rum and wine to grounded travel writers and editors and run a series of online tasting masterclasses to jump-start the promotion of the state’s products, producers and experiences via the journalists’ social-media channels.

There’s been a tsunami of virtual tours, offering armchair travellers the chance to experience everything from looking around street artist Rone’s handiwork at Burnham Beeches mansion on Melbourne’s outskirts to soaking up 360-degree visuals of Uluru while listening to audio clips.

The focus is on intrastate travel but the prospect of interstate journeying looms. Beyond that are what seem like wild fantasies of visiting our near neighbours in the Pacific. Amid the wreckage of Australia’s tourism industry that included a cruising sector worth $5.2 billion to the national economy, some of our 300,000-plus tourism businesses have been more nimble than others in finding a way forward.

The Travel Corporation, with brands such as AAT Kings, Trafalgar and Insight Vacations, announced it will expand its portfolio of domestic guided holidays. Beating this behemoth out of the gate is Sydney-based Lisa Pagotto, founder of boutique tour operator Crooked Compass, which once focused entirely on exotic destinations such as Mongolia, Papua New Guinea, North Korea and the Central Asian ’Stans. Earlier this month, she swiftly added “Australia” to the company’s name and announced her first domestic itineraries – soft adventures that also include Indigenous culture. After mentioning the tours on Facebook, Pagotto’s first booking lobbed within 24 hours – for the 10-day Indigenous and Wild Queensland tour that will, all being well, from next May take travellers from Port Douglas to remote rock-art galleries before hopping further inland to Mount Isa and Camooweal on the Queensland–Northern Territory border. That itinerary was pulled together in a week but Pagotto had, in fact, been intending to launch her other Australian tours – including eight-passenger cruises in East Arnhem Land and the Torres Strait, and four-passenger light-aircraft touring – to attract North American guests when the pandemic hit.

The tours fit neatly into what many forecast as tourism’s new growth areas. We will, pundits say, be flocking to splendid, near-empty landscapes to enjoy nature-based experiences. We’ll be tootling about in cars and campervans at first as we await the full return of aviation. Exclusive-use stays, such as those offered by Tasmania’s Picnic Island where just 10 guests can stay overnight, will become even more attractive. Some predict a boom at the ultra-luxury end of the market, where travellers with deep pockets can charter their own yachts and planes to enjoy a private adventure away from the germs of strangers.

We’ll be newly enthusiastic about cycling, self-catering and small hotels. As the manager of Perth’s 48-room COMO The Treasury hotel, Jesse Tibert, tells The Saturday Paper: “Our advantage is that we’re boutique. We’re not housed within a high-rise building and our accommodation floorplan allows for allocating rooms away from one another. Guests won’t need to check in by queuing up in an overcrowded lobby and there are no crowded lifts.”

Kim Seagram, co-owner of Launceston’s Stillwater restaurant and seven attached guestrooms, expects room service to be “a major selling feature”, especially for guests “who will feel safer with these in-room options”. Canberra’s Nishi Apartments by Ovolo in late April turned guestrooms into private dining rooms where patrons can enjoy a three- or five-course dinner. They can pay extra to stay on overnight if they choose. This “restaurant in room” initiative rolled out at Sydney’s Ovolo Woolloomooloo last week.

The multinational hotel chains have responded quickly to the new obsession with cleanliness. Hilton is looking to translate hospital hygiene practices to hotel rooms. Forget the toilet-lid seal – it’s considering slapping room seals on doors to indicate no one’s entered the room after cleaning. It’s also contemplating deep-cleaning 10 high-touch in-room areas – door handles, light switches, remote controls and the like – and removing stationery and pens. Marriott’s new protocols include sanitising surfaces in guestrooms, lobbies and gyms with hospital-grade disinfectant. It’s also testing UV-light technology for sanitising room keys. Beyond hotel cleanliness, Accor, with 5000 properties in 110 countries, has partnered with insurer AXA to offer guests free access to medical teleconsultations from July.

As air travel begins to ramp up, health checks and questionnaires could become standard, thus slowing the process of checking in and boarding even further. “You can expect the questions will go beyond the usual, ‘Do you have any dangerous items?’ ” says Chris Chamberlin, associate editor at Executive Traveller. “Travellers should be prepared to answer queries about where they’ve been recently, whether they’ve been in contact with anyone known to have Covid-19 and whether they’ve experienced any flu-like symptoms lately.”

Restoring confidence is the key to wooing cautious visitors and it’s vital, given the big bucks at stake. According to Deloitte, in 2019, domestic and international tourists splashed some $138 billion across Australia. In late January, Tourism Australia swivelled to a domestic focus with its Holiday Here This Year campaign to help the country’s bushfire-ravaged communities. There was barely time to refocus on international markets before the pandemic hit. In April it launched a domestic campaign that ratcheted up last weekend with its social-media channels live-streaming experiences such as Indigenous guide Juan Walker hunting mud crabs on North Queensland’s remote Cooya Beach, a kids’ disco with The Wiggles and Chris “Brolga” Barns feeding kangaroos at his Alice Springs sanctuary.

Tourism Australia’s managing director, Phillipa Harrison, tells The Saturday Paper: “At the moment … one of our big focuses is keeping people dreaming about Australia. In the domestic audience, it’s also about educating people. People think they know what there is to see and do here but I think they’d be surprised at how many things they don’t know about. What we’re trying to do is … plant some ideas in terms of [people] planning their next holiday so they can start planning and dreaming right now.”

Still, Harrison is under no illusion about the tough road ahead, given that many Australians are out of work or have used up their annual leave, are watching their savings dwindle and have less money to spend on holidays. “It’s more than recovery – it’s restart,” she says. “We have a really long way back. We think demand is there so it’s really just around the sustainability of the industry as we navigate this period. I’m not worried about the industry in the long term – I’m worried about it in the medium term.

“We all have a job to do to really help Australia get back on its feet. It’s also an opportunity for us – because it is a restart – to really reimagine what we are as a tourism destination too. The key for us is the tone and timing of our messaging and our recovery. I’m devastated by what’s going on around us – and harrowed by it – but also excited by the possibilities on the other side. We shouldn’t waste this crisis.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2020 as "Road map to recovery ".

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Katrina Lobley is a freelance travel and arts writer.

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