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It’s becoming a familiar story: Extreme weather events and natural disasters — be it flooding, fires, or snowstorms — reaching unprecedented and record-breaking levels, upending local communities, cities, and ecosystems, and, of course, battering tourism industries as a result.
The fires in Australia have been raging since the autumn and affecting tourism-heavy regions in the states of Victoria and New South Wales. There have also been fires in Western Australia, South Australia, and Tasmania. Residents and tourists have been evacuated from the New South Wales’ 155-mile coastline in what the Transport minister called the “largest mass relocation of people out of the region that we’ve ever seen.” Conditions could worsen over the weekend, with temperatures on the southern coast climbing.
As it is summer in the southern hemisphere, the Christmas and school holiday period are a high time for tourism. The Australian Tourism Industry Council told the Guardian Australia yesterday that while it’s still too early to assess the full impact, the loss would figure in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The council’s director added that the heavy media coverage of the fires oversees — underscored by the Australian prime minister’s unpopular response to the crisis — was having “an unquestionable mounting impact on tourism from these fires.”
The Guardian further reported that more than 4,000 insurance claims at a cost of AUD $297 million have been made since the fires started. Furthermore, Reuters reported that during December, Sydney hotels saw at 10 percent decline in guests.
The council’s executive director, Simon Westaway, said in a statement: “Like all Australians we are dismayed by the ongoing devastation caused by the bushfires impacting many of our regional communities across the nation where tourism is now an important social and economic pillar. The bushfire crisis has and will continue to have a significant impact on our industry both directly and indirectly moving forward. But the immediate priority is for our industry and our tens of thousands of businesses to best support their local communities as authorities work to curtail threatening fires.”
Though it may be undoubtedly horrendous for tourism operators, tourism is certainly not the most tragic casualty of the wildfires. Tragically, it’s been reported that half a billion animals and plants have died as a result of the fires and many homes lost. There have been at least 19 deaths, and more people are missing.
That’s perhaps why Australian Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham had to defend a decision to roll out a sunny campaign targeted at Brits, inviting them to escape the Brexit blues and come for a trip Down Under. Criticism of the campaign centered around the unsophisticated way it portrayed Australians, but also the fact it was rolled out in the United Kingdom over Christmas, as the British and global media was saturated with apocalyptic-looking coverage of the fires. Birmingham defended the campaign to the Sydney Morning Herald on New Year’s Day, but the campaign was subsequently put on pause on Jan. 4, “out of respect.” Tourism Australia said they would reassess if and when to relaunch it on a daily basis.
Prime Minster Scott Morrison said the fires were likely to last until there is significant rainfall. As is often the case with tourism, it’s not conditions on the ground that determine whether tourists will book, but their perception of it. Currently, Down Under, it seems that both are bad. The challenges for Australia’s tourism industry will be similar to California, where Governor Jerry Brown described wildfire seasons that last nearly all year as “the new abnormal.”
UPDATED: This story was updated to include information about Australia’s tourism campaign being paused, as well as to include comment from Simon Westaway, who responded to Skift’s query after publication.