We’re in for a very hot summer. What does this mean for Outback tourism?

The Northern Territory Australia - May 18, 2011: The sun rises beyonds the magnificent sandstone monolith that is Uluru, illuminating the grass & scrub in the foreground.

In case the random heatwaves and searing sun weren’t cluing you in, we are in for a hot one this summer.

The Bureau of Meteorology has announced that El Niño is currently active. The flip side of the wet La Niña season which saw record-breaking rain and flooding across the East Coast of Australia, El Niño will bring a hot and dry summer, with heightened levels of bushfires and record-breaking temperatures on the way.

Impacted heavily by this is the great Australian outdoors. And while it may seem that this spells immediate bad news for the tourism industry, the reality is a touch more complicated.

Looking inland, El Niño may seem like it spells trouble for the Red Centre, but Brett Mitchell, the managing director ANZ of Intrepid, says otherwise.

El Niño is actually the cycle that brings more predictable weather to the Red Centre; generally drier and hotter temperatures in comparison to La Niña with many unpredictable downpours that often close roads,” Mitchell told Travel Weekly, adding that the wholesaler will need to continue to monitor whether adjustments to scheduling is required.

“But for now, we can manage by being flexible and mindful of the weather while on tour,” he said.

The CEO of AAT Kings, Ben Hall, echoed Mitchell’s sentiment, saying that what could possibly change on Red Centre tours are the specific details of itineraries.

“To give you an example, on the Walpa Gorge, in Kata Tjuta, between nine and 10 in the morning, if they know it’s going to be hot in the middle of the day they’ll generally close down so that you need to have gone into the [gorge] and come out by a set time rather than being out there and exposed to the elements,” Hall said. He went on to add that it’s a matter of adjusting the start times of itineraries, altering what activities travellers do or how long they walk for to properly prepare for El Niño.

Kata Tjuta, a rock formation in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Walpa Gorge Walk (iStock/renelo)

While the Red Centre may go largely unaffected this summer from warmer weather alone, the high likelihood of bushfires could have a vast impact. Tony Quarmby, the executive director of Tourism NT, said tourism to the territory can be impacted by people cancelling trips with multi-state itineraries.

“What we are affected by, and what the previous situations have raised, is when these bushfires happen, people cancel their holidays and the NT is part of a multi-state itinerary,” Quarmby told Travel Weekly. “We see that as a bigger challenge than the direct bushfire issue in the NT.”

Quarmby highlighted the importance of accurate up to date information to avoid exaggerated reports of this weather event feeding people misinformation, as was the case in the 2019/20 bushfires.

“We don’t want what happened the last time around… The international media sensationalised [the bushfires] and it looked like the whole of Australia was on fire because they weren’t getting up-to-date and accurate information.”

An widely circulated artist visualisation of the Australian bushfires that was mistaken as a real image

While media reports of Australia’s bushfires had a somewhat adverse effect on tourism across Australia, data from the Big Red Group showed that it experienced a 248 per cent uplift in NT bookings across the state. Big Red CEO David Anderson said the summer season is typically the busiest time of year for its suppliers, so preparing for El Niño has been a top priority.

“We encourage tourism operators to plan ahead,” Anderson said.

“Example measures include implementing a heat policy, ensuring proper ventilation and air conditioning for indoor experiences, while providing shade and shelter for outdoor activities. It’s also worth considering whether there will be a slight decrease in bookings for outdoor experiences during the hottest part of the day, taking another look at resourcing and moving booking slots to cooler parts of the day.”

The outback isn’t the only part of Australia impacted by El Niño. Further coral bleaching is forecasted for the Great Barrier Reef during this weather event, spurring local operators to emphasise tourism that’s focused on research, education and management.

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