11 Oct 2021

Pandemic prompts Aussies to holiday at home, but not everyone is enjoying the outback

A new wave of outback travellers is having a hard time adjusting to the dusty, phone-free realities of outback travel, according to remote tourism operators.

The pandemic shutdown of international travel has prompted many Australians to buy 4WDs and hit the road for holidays in northern and Central Australia for the first time.

But some are getting a rude shock, discovering that the Australian outback is actually full of dust, corrugated roads, fresh food shortages and other inconveniences not found in Bali.

Jodie Newman and her husband manage the Mt Barnett Roadhouse on the Gibb River Road in northern Western Australia.

"There are definitely a lot of people coming up the road this year that haven't had a lot off-road experience," Ms Newman said.

"A lot of people don't realise how remote it is and haven't done their research in regards to internet coverage and things like that.

"So they are getting shocks along the way and are a bit uneasy about not having the level of service and comfort that they're use to and not having things like mobile phone range."

Staff cop criticism 

Some outback 4WD tracks are experiencing record-high visitor numbers at a time when regional and remote businesses are short staffed and dealing with delivery delays linked to border closures.

Many are from relatively COVID-free locations such as Perth and Darwin.

There have also been thousands of tourists from Victoria and New South Wales who headed north prior to the mid-2021 lockdowns.

The Mt Barnett Roadhouse is one of only two fuel stops on the Gibb River Road and does not have mobile phone coverage.

Fresh food is delivered once a week and is more expensive due to unavoidable freight and refrigeration costs.

Ms Newman said she has had to intervene when staff have been faced with cranky travellers.

"We've had a lot of really great travellers but we have had comments like, 'Why aren't you open 24/7? Why haven't you got this, why haven't you got that?'" she said.

"We have to kindly remind them that this is what life is like out here.

"The Kimberley has really struggled to get staff this year, so everyone is doing the best they can."

'Two types of traveller' 

It is a trend observed by the Australian 4WD Association, which has welcomed the boom in people embarking on outback travel for the first time.

But president Paul Warner says some people are failing to do research or join 4WD clubs and are getting a rude shock as a result.

"They don't expect the roads to be in the condition they're in, they don't get internet and phone and supplies are limited and more expensive," he said.

"They're being caught unawares because, by and large, they haven't done their research."

Mr Warner says going outside your comfort zone is an essential part of four-wheel driving.

"People who go four-wheel driving normally, it's all about the trip not just the destination, so they're prepared to be patient and put up with more stuff along the way," he said.

"But you're getting newbies who maybe are used to going to resorts where they're waited on and everything's being provided for them, which certainly isn't the case in places like the Kimberley or northern Queensland.

"So probably there's two different types of people — some are going to be suited to outback travel and others aren't."

The main priority, according to the association, is that people are aware of safety requirements such as carrying communications equipment and staying with their vehicle if things go wrong.

Tetchy tourists face empty shelves

There has also been discontent among visitors to northern towns like Broome and Kununurra where shop shelves have been stripped bare during the COVID-related tourism boom.

Supermarkets have been struggling to keep up with demand for fresh produce due to snap border closures and a shortage of staff willing to help with restocking.

Kununurra businesswoman Kalyn Fletcher experienced the wrath of holidaymakers while trying to source fresh food for her family's Ord Hoochery restaurant.

"One day in Coles, literally all that was for sale was a $9 bag of organic Brussels sprouts, and there were a couple of tourists really complaining," she said.

"I just said to them, 'Look, this is Kununurra, you can't just go to the next Coles in the next suburb'.

"I don't think people mean to be negative. It's just a thing of explaining to them why there are shortages and that it's part of our life here."

The boom in self-drive travellers has provided much-needed relief for some northern businesses affected by the lockdowns in 2020, like cafes and caravan parks.

The northern tourist season usually winds down in October as the weather becomes hot and humid, but many businesses are reporting above-average forward bookings for the wet season.

SOURCE: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-08-24/tetchy-tourists-unsure-about-outback-internet-food-supply/100394982

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