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Crisis, survival and recovery in the tourism industry

Australia’s tourism, hospitality and events (THE) industries have been hit hard by the recent bushfires, followed by the COVID-19 emergency.

In recent years, THE has been a major driver of jobs and economic growth, but the Tourism and Transport Forum estimates that industry is now losing around $9 billion a month nationwide due to restrictions on travel and social distancing measures.

The big question being asked right now is, how is industry responding and will it recover?

Based on industry focus groups convened by the Victoria Tourism Industry Council (VTIC), the industry is feeling the pain. At the same time, we are seeing incredible examples of innovation and planning to rebound after restrictions on movement are eased and eventually lifted.  

The tourism industry is responding to the shut-down in three phases: hibernation, the road to recovery, and recovery.

Until Easter, key attractions, accommodation, transport, restaurants, sports venues, event companies and theatres generally took protective cover from the forced closures and loss of income through a hard and distressing process of standing down employees and assessing how government support could help carry them through the shut-down.

The JobKeeper strategy was greeted as a business saviour, although many organisations are now left with a skeleton staff working reduced hours. As one accommodation provider commented, "As of next week, our whole team will go on .4FTE and we are hoping that JobKeeper will cover that."

Having dealt with the initial blows, the industry is preparing to ‘pivot, plan and position’ along the road to recovery. Remarkable examples are emerging of businesses pivoting – or transforming their traditional business model to address current conditions. 13cabs for example, has rapidly turned its taxi business from an exclusive focus on human passengers to a service that will deliver anything ‘that’s legal and fits in a cab'. Similar examples can be found in aviation, events planning and visitor attractions.

The industry is also busy planning. As well as getting a lot of ‘housework’ done – building maintenance, IT systems upgrades and so on – much effort is going into sourcing data, anticipating future trends and assessing how a ‘new normal’ will look once travel restrictions are lifted. While these predictions vary, no one expects tourism behaviour to return to pre-COVID-19 rates for years, if ever, and different sectors will recover before others

For example, domestic tourism is anticipated to grow more quickly, with a greater demand for open space and nature-based tourism opportunities, and sectors such as caravan and camping and drive holidays are likely to bounce back more quickly.

Steven Wright, CEO of BIG4 Holiday Parks, says, “The adage of 'holiday at home' has never been truer. We will see people exploring regional tourism products and accommodation in their own states first. This gives an opportunity for regional operators to showcase their products to a potential new audience. We are using partners such as the Wiggles to showcase our offering in a fun and relevant manner for young families.”

When international visitors return, industry planners anticipate and are targeting a more diverse spread of markets, with a reduction in group travel from China.

Likewise, the industry is positioning. Despite the COVID-19 shut-down, the priority is to send the right messages at the right time to future visitors of regions, events and attractions.

While government and regional tourism boards have rightfully sent a message to ‘stay at home’ while Stage 3 restrictions are in place, the tourism industry continues to communicate with its members, past visitors and future potential markets about its destinations and attractions.

Melbourne’s iconic Federation Square, for example, is curating ‘virtual square’ experiences with online learning and a kids-at-home program hosted by the National Gallery of Victoria that is housed on the square. While this won’t generate revenue, virtual content creates another avenue for a continued relationship with the public, locally and internationally.

While the actual products are still in evolution, events and sports organisations and destinations are in the process of developing value packs, competitions and promotions for members and visitors – with the aim of keeping visitor experiences in the minds of the public as they contemplate life after social isolation measures are lifted.

The recovery phase is at present unclear. As government announcements are suggesting, social isolation measures will be lifted gradually and the Chief Health Officer forecasts that there will be a cautious and phased return to full mobility.  

Similarly, we can expect tourism messaging to encourage renewed visitation to start local, with gradual encouragement to the public to go regional and interstate. This gradual reawakening of the industry also implies that tourism businesses will re-emerge with fewer staff, at least initially, as business activity takes time to reactivate.

While the industry is still in shock, there is much appreciation for the many silver linings that have surfaced during the COVID-19 crisis. Like our own governments, the industry is forming collaborations and initiatives that were unimaginable only a month ago. There is a renewed appreciation from across the community for the importance of tourism and the wider visitor economy as a generator of jobs, prosperity and the experiences that make our lives joyful.

Likewise, the industry is collectively and individually giving back to their own communities through innovation and a resolve to emerge from crisis as stronger and different as we find our ‘new normal’.

Dr Joanne Pyke is Director of the School for the Visitor Economy at Victoria University.

Professor Terry DeLacy is Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Victoria University.

Felicia Mariani is Chief Executive at Victoria Tourism Industry Council.

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One comment

  1. ATW has a big project in progress for sustainable tourism and crisis management all over the world; but will start basically in Australia for now. Additional arrangements with the Australian ministry of Tourism required.

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