27 Aug 2020

Queenslanders provide glimmer of hope for Nth Qld tourism

Fitzroy Island chief executive Glen Macdonald has been flat out in the past few months, but this year it has been Queenslanders rather than international or interstate tourists who have flocked to the island resort off Cairns.

While the loss of international and interstate tourists has hit the tourism mecca hard, a rise in locals exploring their own state is offering a glimmer of hope that tourism operators can survive the coronavirus pandemic.

"Business is quite strong, albeit our two core markets of NSW and Victoria are not here," Mr Macdonald told AFR Weekend.

"We have had to change our marketing strategies to capture the market we need. We have managed to draw a lot of business from intrastate, mostly south-east Queensland, which has always been a worthwhile market, but it's been bolstered to a higher level."

The demand from Queenslanders – who are unable to leave their state, let alone the country – has led to Qantas boosting its Brisbane to Cairns flights from 37 a week in July to 53 a week in August.

Sydney to Melbourne used to be the airline's busiest route in Australia, but Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said this was now Brisbane to Cairns. 

Other intrastate flights such as Perth to Broome and Sydney to Ballina are also proving popular as families attempt to escape COVID-19 cabin fever.

Despite pressure from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has flagged the state's borders could remain closed to NSW, the ACT and Victoria until the end of the year.

That gives Queenslanders – like 10 million other Australians every year who used to travel overseas – little option but to explore options closer to home.

We've lost a bit of yield as we have had to discount to get people here.

— Glen Macdonald, chief executive, Fitzroy Island

Travellers from South Australia and the Northern Territory – who are allowed into Queensland – are also helping business tick along.

Mr Macdonald said occupancy at the 105-room Fitzroy Island resort had been 65 per cent to 70 per cent during the week and 90 per cent on weekends. Forward bookings were also strong.

"This is pent-up interest and people who just want to get out and do anything," he said.

"This business is great, but we're still short of what we used to do [pre-coronavirus]. We've lost a bit of yield as we have had to discount to get people here. But the positive sign is we are operational and our poor friends in Victoria don't have that option."

The luxury resort town of Port Douglas – which relies on the southern market – has not fared as well.

Occupancy rates are about 30 per cent to 40 per cent and will drop to 20 per cent to 25 per cent next week, according to local tourism officer Tara Bennett.

"Queensland tourism is on a two-speed economy with many areas like Outback and south-east Queensland performing well. In North Queensland it's a very different and heart-breaking story," she said.

Tourism Tropical North Queensland chief executive Mark Olsen said operators were enjoying money flowing in again, but it did not make up for the loss of international and interstate visitors.

Aviation and accommodation in the Cairns region were running at one-third of pre-COVID-19 levels, while tour operators (11 per cent of capacity) and reef tours (15 per cent of capacity) were still well short of what they used to be.

"It's good news that people are travelling again, but for the moment we are stuck with Queenslanders and those from South Australia and the Northern Territory," he said.

"They are our only options at the moment. The numbers are still a fraction of what the destination is ready for."

Mr Olsen predicts the region will lose $2.2 billion in visitor expenditure for the year.

He said it would be a disaster if Queensland's borders were closed until the end of the year.

"It's our worst fear," he said. "If borders remain closed until Christmas there would be businesses who could simply not hang on. There would be business closures in the hundreds.

"While JobKeeper props up one part of business costs – that being wages – insurance, lease fees, banks fees and charges are kicking back in. Businesses are losing money every month and there's only so many months you can do that for."

SOURCE: https://www.afr.com/companies/tourism/queenslanders-provide-glimmer-of-hope-for-nth-qld-tourism-20200821-p55o0c

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