Skift Take

Australia's prolonged border closures gave tour operators running trips in the country for overseas visitors plenty of time to study travel trends worldwide. So think less Sydney and Melbourne, and more rustic settings as the country prepares for it is long-awaited opening Monday.

The Australian government’s announcement earlier this month that the country would reopen to fully vaccinated overseas tourists from Monday on was long overdue good news for its travel industry. Businesses have lost roughly $72 billion in revenue since the start of the pandemic due to border closures that one executive said brought the sector to its knees.

Tour operators running trips in Australia particularly hit hard by travel curbs were among the biggest beneficiaries of the decision since they could finally welcome back the large numbers of overseas guests their businesses have been heavily dependent on.

But what steps have those companies taken to make their Australia offerings more appealing to prospective international guests? Many of them are developing new itineraries showcasing rural areas of the country and destinations they largely hadn’t featured before to attract the growing number of travelers worldwide eager to visit less-crowded spaces since the start of the pandemic. Research conducted by the United Nations World Tourism Organization revealed that rural tourism would emerge as a major travel trend shaping up in 2022.

“The feeling is post-pandemic, people are seeing outdoor space, fewer crowds, (more) natural attractions and outdoors environments,” said Ben Hall, CEO of Australian-based tour operators AAT Kings and Inspiring Journeys.

“We’ve (created) some new products to get people out into those areas that we feel they’re after. It allows us to go to destinations that we really didn’t see there was demand (for). We’re now seeing that.”

That demand led Hall to help develop two new trips in the Outback in Queensland and South Australia for AAT Kings as well as two tours for Inspiring Journeys that take travelers to national parks. Meanwhile, Matt Berna, the North American managing director for Intrepid Travel, said that many of the 21 offerings that his company created during the pandemic take guests away from popular tourist trails and include activities such trekking and cycling outside of urban areas.

But despite the surge in interest several tour operators have seen for their Australia excursions — Melissa DaSilva, the U.S. president of Trafalgar Tours, said web traffic to its Australian trip pages increased by 200 percent following the announcement of the border reopening — some companies still have to had to grapple with Covid concerns expressed by prospective guests.

“People are concerned, if they travel, what conditions will remain and what will change,” said Hall, who told Skift that close to half of his companies’ guests are international.

“There necessarily hasn’t been freedom of movement in Australia.”

That certainly wasn’t the case until Western Australia, the country’s largest state, announced on Friday that it would be opening its borders from March 3 to double-vaccinated international visitors quarantine-free as well as vaccinated and boosted Australian residents traveling from other states. Western Australia had kept its borders shut since the start of the pandemic while others had modified their border policies depending on the severity of the pandemic. Australian states have had the authority to establish their own Covid restrictions, including entry rules.

So how does the state’s reopening change plans for tour operators?

“We wouldn’t necessarily develop new programs in Western Australia,” said Chris Hundleby, the Australia program director for Massachusetts-based tour operator Road Scholar, prior to Premier Mark McGowan’s announcement. “But we will be able to then confirm departures and finalize details for our current program that includes (the state) and, perhaps, open up more dates for the program.”

Even with the whole country opening up soon to vaccinated international visitors, several tour operators told Skift they aren’t expecting to see large numbers of international guests join their tours immediately. Hundleby said the timing of the government’s announcement didn’t provide Road Scholar enough time to conduct any tours during the spring as the company’s Australia season runs from September through April.

Meanwhile, Hall predicts his companies won’t be running their core offerings for overseas guests until May at the earliest as he believes travelers in international markets will book trips between three and six months prior to their departure.

“We’ll start to see large volumes of international guests if not in June or July but later in the year,” Hall said, adding while September has historically been the month when overseas customers start coming en masse, the pent-up demand many travelers have to Australia might cause his companies booking patterns to change.

But regardless of when tour operators start seeing international visitors on their Australia trips, several executives told Skift they’ve taken numerous steps to keep their clients safe. Trafalgar’s DaSilva told Skift her company’s excursions will feature more time spent outdoors to follow social distancing measures, including rooftop dining and days trips to national parks. Likewise, Hall said the buses his companies’ guests travel on will be regularly cleaned and be equipped with hand sanitizers.

Despite the ongoing challenges brought by the pandemic, Hall is still confident about large numbers of travelers coming to the country.

“Australia is perceived as a fairly safe environment (in regards to Covid),” Hall said. “(It has) lots of open space and significantly fewer people than other continents of the world.”

“I think that we will see people booking travel here. It’ll gradually progress as we get through the winter months into summer. And I think it will be back and booming by September and October.”

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Tags: australia, reopening, reopening travel, rural tourism, tour operators, tourism australia

Photo credit: More tour operators will likely feature Uluru in their Australia itineraries. releasetheweb / Pixabay