The China travel ban, adopted by the federal government on the advice of Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, has swung a wrecking ball through a tourism sector which, like so many of our export industries, is heavily dependent on China.
Global Ballooning has been around for 27 years but it was eight years ago that Saunders decided to “China-fy” his business. He hired consultants to translate his website and all his safety information into Mandarin and Cantonese, and began making twice-yearly trips to China to meet agents and conduct sales calls.
He now employs five Chinese-speaking staff and every balloon that takes to the air with a Chinese passenger is manned by a translator.
Of the 12,000 customers he flies every year, about half are Chinese. This time of year, with the Lunar New Year festival drawing to a close, eight out of 10 customers would usually be Chinese. But today he has none, and no others on the horizon.
‘After all the work that has been done to attract the Chinese market by Tourism Australia, Visit Victoria and all the companies that promote this country, I think it is a PR disaster.’
Kiff Saunders, Global Ballooning Australia
His frustration is that no one in government seems to understand how dire the situation is.
“If you were going to take such a dramatic measure I would hope the Australian government would seriously consider the consequences of what this is going to mean to small business employment,” he said.
“After all the work that has been done to attract the Chinese market by Tourism Australia, Visit Victoria and all the companies that promote this country, I think it is a PR disaster.”
The Victorian government calculated that in 2017, more than 620,000 Chinese visited the state. Chinese visitors represent 21 per cent of all visitors to Victoria and pumped $2.7 billion into the local economy.
Among the tourist attractions and regions most frequented by Chinese visitors are the Great Ocean Road, Phillip Island and Sovereign Hill. Each is reporting a substantial impact on their businesses.
Sovereign Hill spokeswoman Tegan Benfield said the usual, seasonal gold rush of about 20,000 Chinese tourists had stalled, with about 70 per cent of Chinese visitors cancelling their trips.
“We are working closely with agents and monitoring all outbound tour cancellations,” she said. “It is too early to predict long-term impacts as the situation is still unfolding.”
Along the Great Ocean Road, the absence of tour busses has been a blessing for day-tripping motorists but cause for alarm among tourism operators. In the coastal town of Lorne, Live Wire adventure park owner Luke Nisbet said his business has lost up to $30,000 in trade.
“We would have had, maybe, close to five or six hundred people booked over the next month and they’ve all cancelled,” he said. “It is a real blow, it’s something that we’re going to have to absorb and it’s going to be a bit of a struggle.”
On Phillip Island, Maru Koala and Animal Park owner Ian Heffer said this week’s visitor numbers had dropped by between 50 and 60 per cent.
A Victorian government spokesperson said the impact of the China ban on trade, tourism and international education would be significant but could not yet be quantified.
Tourism businesses, like all businesses, are equipped to survive a quiet patch. The bigger problem they face is no one – not the state or federal government, not Tourism Australia – can say how long the China ban will last.
Each day, Tourism Australia emails updates about the global and national impact of the coronavirus; how many confirmed cases and deaths it has led to around the world, how many confirmed cases there are in Australia, whether the World Health Organisation, which continues to oppose travel restrictions, has moved to change its advice.
Kiff Saunders would like something else; an acknowledgment that the travel ban will lead to job losses and the closure of businesses, and undoing years of hard work.
Chip Le Grand is The Age’s chief reporter. He writes about crime, sport and national affairs, with a particular focus on Melbourne.