Much is at stake for Australia’s tourism industry as its international markets watch the unfolding of “apocalyptic” bushfires, waiting to decide whether to go ahead with bookings or postpone when the timing is better and happier. The Asian business, in particular, is entering the peak Lunar New Year holidays in three weeks.
The country’s tourism arm, Tourism Australia, asserts that international tourism has not been impacted by the wildfires disaster, a claim that is supported by Asian tour operators that told Skift they too aren’t seeing cancellations for Australia.
But with global media coverage portraying a country ravaged by wildfires, and with most governments including Singapore, the UK, and the U.S. having a note of caution for citizens planning to visit Australia even if the note isn’t a travel advisory, it is unlikely that some foreign tourists would not be reconsidering.
News of how the bushfires are impacting resorts directly are also starting to filter through the industry and affect bookings. At least two of Australia’s iconic luxury resorts that cater to international markets have been forced to close.
Southern Ocean Lodge on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, a popular tourism area with Asian travelers, has sustained “significant damage by bushfire and the property is now closed,” a statement on its website said.
“Currently, a reopening date has not been determined. The Southern Ocean Lodge team will embark on contacting guests as well as travel industry partners over the coming days to make alternative arrangements for upcoming reservations,” it said.
Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley Resort, located within the World Heritage-listed Greater Blue Mountains, a three-hour drive from Sydney, advised that it had escaped damage, but is closed until January 19 “to undertake remedial works to areas of the landscape and hiking trails.” The resort said it will welcome guests again from January 20.
Concerns have also been voiced on the impact the wildfires might have on attendance at the Australian Open tennis tournament, which is scheduled to start on January 20 in Melbourne.
Sydney Festival, from January 7 to 26, has had to cancel its flagship event, Opening Night, a play starring Oscar-nominated actress Isabelle Adjani at the Opera House “due to health concerns related to fire-affected air quality in Sydney.” It was scheduled to run from January 21 to 26.
But a Tourism Australia spokesperson told Skift that feedback from its trade and commercial partners shows no noticeable impact on bookings or of changes to travel plans.
“We will continue to monitor the situation closely but at this stage we aren’t seeing any signs of demand for travel to Australia slowing,” said the spokesperson.
A spokesperson for Chan Brothers Travel, one of Singapore’s largest outbound travel agencies, said demand for travel to Australia for Chinese New Year 2020 “is currently on track to meet the level in 2019, with a two-week plus window for last-minute bookings.”
“While the bushfires have impacted certain regions of Australia, many other areas are unaffected with most tourism businesses remaining open. That said, we place utmost priority on customer safety and closely monitor the local situation by keeping in touch with our ground operators and airline partners for information. If required, necessary changes to flights and itineraries will be made in order to allow our travelers to continue their programs as scheduled as far as possible,” said the spokesperson.
The fact that most of the fires are not affecting areas most visited by international tourists is a reason why there has not been an impact in demand to Australia, according to Munind Shah, director of The Travel Planners in India, an increasingly important market for Australia.
“Secondly due to high VFR [visiting friends and relatives] traffic, clients are already educated by their counterparts in Australia if it’s safe to visit or not. We have only had one luxury honeymoon cancellation where the Emirates One & Only advised us that they shall close until January 20, hence clients were diverted elsewhere,” said Shah.
Where are clients going?
“The tropical North Queensland, the wondrous Great Barrier Reef, the rugged Kimberley and Top End of Australia, along with the Outback, Tasmania, South and Western Australia all are pretty much selling well here,” said Shah.
Australia is a huge continent with six states — Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania — and two mainland territories, Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. The areas worst hit by the bushfires are in the east coast. But for Chan Brothers, eastern states such as Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria are still popular, along with Western Australia, including Broome, Adelaide and Tasmania, and the Northern Territory destinations, said its spokesperson.
Tourism Australia Managing Director Phillipa Harrison in a statement urged travelers coming to Australia to“ seek the most up to date information prior to departure, and remain informed about changing conditions whilst on the ground.”
The statement provides links to updates from the rural fire service, national parks and relevant emergency services of each state and territory.
“Travelers are also encouraged to speak with local tourism operators and staff at local visitor information centers for advice about local conditions and how best to enjoy their time in Australia.”
But as Skift wrote on January 3, it’s not conditions on the ground that determine whether tourists will book, but their perception of it. Tourists planning to visit are looking less for in-destination information than information that can help them decide whether or not to go ahead and visit. Having to trawl through individual sites and decipher risks or no risks may put some off; moreover, weather knows no borders, conditions can change and it is a task to predict what a holiday in Australia might look like in a few weeks not just in safety terms but in the sense of enjoyment amid communities’ shared sorrows, damaged places and ravaged nature.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday said the government was committing an extra $1.4 billion (A$2 billion) towards a recovery effort, The Associated Press reports. The funds will go toward rebuilding towns and infrastructure destroyed by the fires.
“The fires are still burning. And they’ll be burning for months to come,” Morrison said. “And so that’s why I outlined today that this is an initial, an additional, investment of $2 billion. If more is needed and the cost is higher, then more will be provided.”
Federal Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham in a statement forwarded to Skift acknowledged “there is always a risk that the widespread media coverage of these bushfires will also impact other regions of Australia.”
“We are monitoring the global media coverage and its impact on future bookings closely and assessing how to address the impact of this as the situation unfolds,” said Birmingham.
“Our government will continue to invest record amounts in Tourism Australia for campaigns that highlight Australia as a world-class and safe tourism destination, whether in unaffected regions or those that will recover from these bushfires in the months or years to come.”
The government’s number one priority, however, continues to be on fighting these fires and the safety of communities and tourists in affected areas, he said.
Update: Tourism Australia has since updated its website to include a summary of its most popular destinations for international travelers, and whether they have been impacted by the current bushfires or are safe to visit. It updates the list regularly.