Australian tourism battles its own blaze

Australian tour operators are fighting the perception that the country is unsafe for visitors and that much of its naturally beautiful environment has been destroyed.

Unaffected destinations such as the Blue Mountains (Three Sisters rock formation pictured) have registered a 60 per cent decrease in visitors
  • Misrepresentation of the bushfire crisis by international media has hurt Australian tourism
  • Many popular tourist destinations unaffected, visitors encouraged to stick to travel plans upon doing due diligence
  • Economic impact drastic in destinations across the country
Unaffected destinations such as the Blue Mountains (Three Sisters rock formation pictured) have registered a 60 per cent decrease in visitors

Australian tour operators are fighting the perception that the country is unsafe for visitors and that much of its naturally beautiful environment has been destroyed.

Tourism Australia’s office and industry commentators have been inundated with calls from all over the world, fielding questions about the extent of the damage caused by one of the worst bushfires the country has seen and its impact on tourism.

“I was interviewed by (an international broadcast network), who seemed to be under the impression that Australia was burnt to a cinder, and that we wouldn’t bounce back for 30 years,” said David Beirman, senior lecturer in tourism at University of Technology Sydney.

“I’m glad I was able to correct some of those ridiculous assumptions… but that’s the kind of negative stuff that’s coming out from some of the less informed sections of the international media.”

Australia’s tourism bodies insist many popular tourist destinations are unaffected and remain open to visitors, urging that it’s now more important than ever to stick to travel plans and support the industry, worth A$143 billion (US$98.8 billion).

“We are still gathering feedback from the industry and monitoring impacts on future bookings closely as the situation unfolds,” said Tourism Australia’s managing director Phillipa Harrison.

“As we have seen from past severe weather events and natural disasters, tourism is an extremely resilient sector. When affected communities are ready to once again welcome visitors, tourism will continue to play an important role in supporting their recovery,” she continued.

Tourism Australia says at present, Brisbane, Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, much of Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory are considered safe to visit. All international airports have also remained open, including those in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, despite many eastern cities experiencing smokey and sometimes apocalyptically red skies.

Business tourism impact
So far, business events tourism appears largely unaffected. An anecdotal poll revealed while there have been a good number of concerned enquiries, actual cancellations have been few.

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, which turned into a transition and relief centre for more than 200 bushfire victims, reported no impact on business. So has Melbourne Convention Bureau and Business Events Sydney, noting that the summer holidays are usually quieter periods for global meetings anyway.

In fact, there’s been some show of support. “With those enquiries, we have been heartened at the genuine warmth towards Australia and concern for our welfare,” said BESydney CEO’s Lyn Lewis-Smith.

“Some – like the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine who are bringing their 28th Annual Meeting & Exhibition here in April – are leading on the front, providing advice to delegates on how they can best demonstrate their support,” she said.

Tasmania is another Australian destination that is safe; Mount Wellington Lookout structure overlooking the city of Hobart pictured

Damage control
However, there’s no denying some incredible damage has been done. More than 10 million hectares of land have been burnt, including almost half of South Australia’s Kangaroo Island where about 25,000 koalas didn’t survive. Some areas in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains are being described as a ghost town, with up to 60 per cent loss in visitors while some tourism operators in Victoria’s Gippsland are seeing a 90 per cent business decrease, despite most tourism areas being untouched by the fires.

“These fires have come at the peak of our season, particularly for the domestic market,” said Terry Robinson, CEO of Destination Gippsland, who estimates economic damage in Gippsland to be in the “tens of millions of dollars”.

“There’s no doubt the media coverage and the genuine safety warnings and emergency messages have had an impact and rightly so. (But) it probably couldn’t have come at a worse time in terms of the travel season. So we’re working hard to look at how we can restore visitation as soon as it’s safe and possible to do so,” he said.

Global considerations
The international media coverage threatens to undo years of careful investment Tourism Australia has poured into promoting Australia’s attributes overseas as it tackles the crisis running on its feet. In Britain, Tourism Australia was forced to suspend its new three-minute commercial where the advertising of summer beach holidays fronted by Kylie Minogue was criticised for poor timing against rolling news images of burnt forests, exhausted firefighters and terrified animals.

Beirman believes Australia will also experience a temporary decline in Chinese visitation during the Lunar New Year although numbers may be tempered by the many visitors who travel to see relatives studying and living in Australia.

“But a very critical question is that with the new Tourism Australia ‘Philausophy’ campaign, which had a lot of focus on our clear skies, unpolluted environment, clean and green image… Well, everything that’s been happening over the last few months has actually contradicted that image. So I guess if you’re from Shanghai and want to escape the pollution there, you’re not going to be doing it by coming to Sydney or Melbourne, at least not right at this point in time,” he opined.

International visitors who are seeking regularly updated information on top destinations detailing impacted areas, as well as visitor safety information, click here.

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