OPINION: Another year of hard borders could crush the tourism sector

Border closed displayed on overhead highway sign. Composite image.

Internationally recognised tourism expert Professor Sam Huang believes another year of hard borders could cripple Australia’s largest service export industry. In this opinion piece, he explains why…

Australia’s international border was closed to most foreigners on 20 March 2020. Our border is likely to remain closed for the rest of 2021 – though the federal government has held out some hope it could be earlier if the national vaccination program proves effective.

Globally, Australia is already among the most affected countries by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of tourism revenue loss, despite the relatively low number of reported cases. Australia lost A$35.44 billion tourism revenue in the first 10 months of 2020, ranking eighth on the list of countries that have suffered the most tourism revenue losses due to the pandemic.

Tourism is Australia’s largest service export industry as shown in Australia’s government strategy paper Tourism 2020. It is too important to be subverted by the current pandemic situation.

How does tourism contribute to the Australian economy?

Tourism accounted for around 13 per cent of Australia’s total number of businesses, employing five per cent of the national workforce in the financial year 2018-2019.

Domestic tourism has remained relatively buoyant, in part due to a push from governments and tourism bodies to promote holidaying locally. In 2019, Australians spent A$80.7 billion on domestic overnight trips and A$26.3 billion on daytrips. In the year ending September 2020, Australians had spent A$51.9 billion on domestic overnight trips.

However internationally things are tough. Latest international visitor arrivals data from Tourism Australia show there were only 7,570 visitor arrivals in November 2020, marking a 99.1 per cent sharp decrease compared to the same month visitor arrivals in the previous year.

The demise of Australia’s tourism industry may also impact employment levels, especially among young Australians. According to Austrade, tourism jobs decreased 18 per cent compared to just 7 per cent across the Australian labour force over 2020.

2021 could be a life-and-death year

It is understandable during the pandemic that country borders are tightly controlled and monitored to prevent the spread of the virus through human mobility. However, keeping country border exclusively closed to all major inbound tourism market countries may not be a judicious solution in the longer term.

Australia has been performing exceptionally well in containing COVID-19 infections. However more flexible, strategic and differentiating international border policies are needed to avoid significant damage to the tourism industry.

Currently, Australia is discussing a two-way travel bubble with Singapore, which would allow travellers from one country to land on another without compulsory self-quarantine, on the condition of pre-trip vaccination. It is likely New Zealand may join the duet to form a three-way travel bubble.

New Zealanders have been allowed to travel quarantine-free travel into Victoria and NSW since October.

Australia must explore more innovative, strategic and safe ways to begin allowing travel into the country while maintaining strict health protocols.

Lessons from China

By the end of 2020, China has enjoyed an positive recovery for its domestic tourism. The quick adoption of a health code app after the COVID outbreak in February 2020 seems to be an effective measure using technology to contain the virus spread.

Like China, Australia could integrate government travel safe apps to build an industry-oriented travel safety system.  Border control agencies and tourism operators could be better prepared to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 with technology like electronic documenting of tourists’ health status, e-certification of vaccination and mobile app tracking of tourists.

A whole trip risk mitigation plan in collaboration with partner tour operators in tourist-origin countries could be developed and put into practice. Such a plan would include pre-trip tests and health status verification, vaccination certification, quarantine management if needed, destination movement and contact tracking, emergency response, and post-trip test and clearance.

Such collaborative industry COVID-response plans will also help to recover the market confidence for international tourism and travel.

When borders can be conditionally opened, international cooperation will be important to jointly reduce infection risks, both in tourist-origin countries and Australia.

Sam Huang is a Professor of Tourism at Edith Cowen University.

Featured image source: iStock/shaunl

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