“Regional areas are going to find it hard, this is going to be an impact for the entire year,” she says.
The outbreak of coronavirus has amplified the decline, further reducing tourists from countries like China because of travel bans and dampening overall international travel due to fears of getting sick.
International visitors typically spend more time in the capital cities than the regional areas, but the downturn still has an effect.
Immediately after the bushfires there were estimates that the tourism industry may face a $1 billion hit with up to 60 per cent of bookings being cancelled in some areas.
Philip MacDonnell has never seen business as bad as it is today for his family-run tour and rental company Bay and Beyond Sea Kayak Tours.
Located in South Durras, on the NSW South Coast between Batemans Bay and Ulladulla, his and other tourism companies have been hurt by the bushfires that ravaged the area over the summer period.
And while big tourism campaigns have started attracting holidaymakers back to some of the hardest hit locations like Mogo and Kangaroo Island, areas that have not had the same level of news coverage and public attention have not seen the same recovery.
“Some areas are [seeing tourists return], some are not,” MacDonnell says.
“For us, because we are not a ‘hashtag location’, we often get completely missed,” he says. “We are hoping for an uptick into Easter and the school holidays.”
The government has been pouring millions of dollars into tourism campaigns and rebuilding efforts to encourage city residents to choose a regional holiday and support affected areas, and some analysts are now tipping improvement by mid-2020.
But for businesses like MacDonnell’s and Hide’s the recovery will likely be a much longer road ahead.
The race to recovery
Former governor-general Sir Peter Cosgrove did not hold back about the urgency of the situation in the regions when he was asked about how businesses were recovering from the bushfires.
Sir Peter, who is chairing the Business Council of Australia’s bushfire rebuilding program BizRebuild, has warned of “immediate vulnerability” in these areas and the need for a long-haul recovery that he believes could take as long as five years to achieve.
“There’s a race to make sure that small businesses in particular that are dotted around in the bushfire affected communities don’t get to that point of … despair, where they just shut up shop, draw stumps and go somewhere else to live or just quit their idea of business,” he said on morning talkback radio.
“We are in … a race against, what I might call, the onset of despair on behalf of small businesses in the bushfire damaged areas.”
Federal Assistant Minister for Tourism Jonathon Duniam is also under no illusion that there’s a long way to go to bring tourists back to all regional areas, with businesses under pressure telling him they have bills to pay and staff they don’t want to let go.
“Across the country had varying figures [of a tourism decline] but it didn’t have to be a bushfire affected state or even community to be impacted by the booking downturn. In Tassie, we had anecdotal evidence of bookings heading south as well,” he tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Within weeks of the worst of the bushfires the federal government made plans to inject $76 million into tourism with a relief fund, including $20 million to be spent on marketing in Australia and $25 million globally to attract international tourists.
There are signs the domestic campaign through Tourism Australia, Holiday Here This Year, alongside grassroots efforts from local communities and state campaigns, are starting to pay off with the decline in bookings slowing down.
“So we’re starting to see the tide turn,” he says.
One business owner from the Batemans Bay region said they had been hard hit by the bushfires and had temporarily closed down. They did not wish to be named as the company, which has a small tourism arm, is still trying to recover.
“We’re rebuilding, we’ll be back,” the owner says. “We’ve had assistance and help from the government, which has been outstanding.”
The international campaign, which has been complicated by the outbreak of coronavirus, has also started to show early signs of shifting the dial, Duniam says.
“We all saw imagery or copies of the footage being broadcast in America and Europe of Australia being on fire,” he says, adding this had seen a significant drop in international visitors with a fall in bookings of 35 per cent, with downturns from countries like China, the UK, US and Germany in the past 10 weeks.
Market research firm IBISWorld analyst Tom Youl expects there could be a return to normal regional tourism levels between May and June, particularly for day-trip visitors.
“It’s hard to say [when the areas will recover] but usually after major shocks it takes about three to four months,” Youl says.
“One of the major things here is that there has been a lot of encouragement to get Australians to get out to the regions, so there’s a chance it could be even quicker.”
Unfortunately, he suspects it may take a bit longer for the numbers of overnight stays to improve and these are the holidaymakers who typically spend more when they visit an area and do more activities than day trippers.
Due to the lower Australian dollar there was a double-digit surge in 2019 of locals travelling to other parts of the country rather than heading overseas and it’s highly likely this trend will continue with the dollar hitting 11-year lows over the week.
Duniam is convinced the regional areas will bounce back, it’s just a matter of “when”.
“This is not the first set of natural disasters or environmental situations. We’ve had cyclones, floods, drought, fire,” he says. “This industry always bounces back.”
One of the things that will be a major focus in the coming months will be how to “future-proof” the industry, he says.
“We will have a bushfire royal commission, which will point to a lot of things that need to be done and should be done to ensure that we don’t have a repeat of these sorts of events.”
This will be a welcome message for Hide in the Grampians, MacDonnell in South Durras and the almost 300,000 tourism-related businesses across the country like theirs, who have been affected and are looking for support.
Jennifer Duke is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.