Peter McLeay stands in his nearly empty hostel in the middle of Cairns. The vacant space has become a familiar sight over the past 12 months.
The owner of Mad Monkey closed one of his five Queensland accommodations last week.
“Normally it is a fairly successful business, but we are down to about 10 to 20 per cent occupancy,” he told The Drum.
Mr McLeay and his business partner have accumulated $1 million in debt in just one year.
He says the venture is trying to hold out as long as it can, but like many he’s facing an uncertain financial future.
When international visitors were encouraged to go home last year, Daniella Yidi chose to stay and work at the hostel on a casual basis.
“You walk into the kitchen and you smell different foods, and hear different languages; it is a beautiful, beautiful thing,” the Californian told The Drum.
“Now that there’s not so many people, it’s a bit quiet and lonely.”
Cairns docks are full — but of empty boats. Like in many parts of the country, the tourist town is grappling with how to move forward when the tourists don’t come.
The onset of the COVID pandemic brought Australia’s tourism industry to an almost immediate halt.
Tourism Research Australia estimated the national tourism industry lost a total of $59.1 billion in international and domestic tourism, from January to September last year.
The most recent ABS data showed jobs for all tourism industries fell in 2020, with the exception of retail and rail transport.
Normally a $3.5 billion a year local industry, Tourism Tropical North Queensland estimates that the region is currently losing $5 million a day.
Federal programs offered an immediate — and essential — lifeline.
The Tourism & Transport Forum (TTF) warned that one in five tourism businesses nationwide could close if JobKeeper wasn’t replaced, and that North Queensland would be particularly hard hit.
Cairns has a population of about 150,000; currently around one-third of the workforce is on the scheme.
The TTF has called on the federal government to replace JobKeeper with a more targeted approach, to address the specific and ongoing challenges facing the tourism industry.
It is asking for $1,500 per fortnight per employee for businesses that have suffered a 50 per cent or greater downturn, or $1,000 a week for employees of businesses experiencing a 30 to 50 per cent downturn.
For the family-run CaPTA Group, continued financial assistance could be essential. It currently has 165 out of 180 employees signed onto the scheme.
The forty-year-old business owns attractions and touring companies across tropical north Queensland.
“A lot of businesses are in the vicinity of … 70 to 90 per cent down on the previous year,” said CaPTA’s director of sales, Ben Woodward.
“A support package along the lines of JobKeeper will be vital for a lot of businesses to continue with their survival through COVID-19.”
Speaking to The Drum as part of a special episode from Cairns, social inclusion specialist Topaz McAuliffe noted that the economic impacts had been felt by the broader region.
“Everybody thinks about the boats going to the reef — but it’s the transport, the coaches, the industry behind it that supports all of that that’s been wiped out.”
“There has to be a bridging solution, knowing that the industry will come back.”
For some Cairns businesses, the tipping point has already passed. Painful financial decisions have had to be made.
Jenny Edmondson from Wavelength Reef Cruises has already sold a boat and a bus and given up office space.
The family-owned business is running at about 17 per cent of pre-COVID operations.
“We are hoping it will pick up for Easter, but we have been saying that for the last few months and that hasn’t happened.”
Ms Edmondson told The Drum the uncertainty had seen some larger businesses begin to lose staff “at an alarming rate”.
Michael Trout echoed that sentiment.
The former LNP member owns a horse-riding and ATV tour company. It paused operations last March. His employees are looking elsewhere for work.
“A lot of them have started applying for other jobs and are asking for myself to be a referee for them — that’s a bit of a jolt.
He said when it came to helping the tourism sector survive — time was of the essence.
“When you’ve got a reef operator with 100 employees and they are taking out 30 people a day, they are going to need something for the next two years.”
Lingering anxiety among potential travellers indicates that the pandemic recovery will be far slower in tourist hotspots such as the Cairns region.
Tourism Port Douglas Daintree executive officer Tara Bennett says only “the brave” are travelling.
“They are not concerned about catching coronavirus anymore; it’s about being able to get home.”
The volatility of state border closures is still being felt, even as recently as this past week.
Nathan Clark ran the LGBTIQ Port Douglas Hot and Steamy festival on the weekend.
He told The Drum that while there was a successful local turnout, 25 per cent of tickets had been sold to people from Greater Melbourne.
Just days before the event the area in Victoria was declared a hotspot.
“Unfortunately we have lost that Victorian market who spend money in the shops, they stay in accommodation, they go to restaurants, they go onto the reef,” he said.
International and state border closures meant Sydneysider Joel McDermott’s honeymoon had been postponed three times.
“We had our fingers crossed that we would make it up here.”
For now, there has been no indication from the federal government of an extended, tailored support beyond the March JobKeeper end date.
But as the region waits for answers, there is still some — perhaps necessary — optimism about the months ahead.
Seabean Tapas Bar owner Henry Johnson is banking on the borders staying open.
“I think with the upcoming year domestic tourism should be fairly strong,” he said.
“It’ll be important to have just that core team revitalised and re-energised and ready to tackle the rest of the year.”
The Drum airs weeknights on ABC and News Channel.
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