Why 'wander out yonder' boom can't plug WA's multi-billion dollar tourism hole
Aug 12, 2020
By Aja Styles
Premier Mark McGowan continues to push West Australians to travel within their own backyard as the solution to the state’s tourism crisis, but figures suggest a potential $8 billion gap in tourism spend if the border remains closed.
Tourism Research Australia statistics showed WA's tourism industry was worth $10.7 billion for the year ending in March, of which $2.2 billion came from international arrivals.
"That money is not going to be made up or compensated for by intrastate travel," Australian Federation of Travel Agents president Darren Rudd said.
"Domestic market substituting for international – because Australians (who usually spend $5000 a head per overseas trip) can’t travel internationally – is only ever going to reach 20 to 25 per cent ($440-550 million)."
Mr Rudd said a gap of about about $1.7 billion in international stimulation, representing travel for things like reunions and business activity, was not finding its way into WA.
WA's domestic tourism, made up of interstate and local travel, makes up $8.5 billion (80 per cent) of its industry, particularly in the North West, where the lucrative Chinese market rarely ventures.
Tourism Council WA chief executive Evan Hall said the average WA tourist typically spends less than $500 a head per trip, whereas interstate visitors were worth just over $1000 a head per trip, and internationals about $2200.
“Our international and interstate visitors definitely stay longer, definitely spend more, definitely do more and they just travel in a completely different way, in part because they have to, and in part because they’re often a first-time visitor and they’re making the most of it,” Mr Hall said.
Even if every single person in WA’s population of 2.6 million spent last year’s tourism average of $900 a head (which normally is spent by 11.7 million visitors) on a “holiday in their backyard”, it would still only amount to $2.34 billion.
It would take each person making four such trips for this year to come even close to making up last year's pre-COVID total.
Perth Airport has recorded a 48 per cent drop in intrastate passengers; down to 578,000 for April, May and June compared to 1.2 million for the same time last year.
The airport's intrastate passengers include fly-in, fly-out resource workers, who made up the vast majority of intrastate flights, which only dropped 20 per cent.
"The reason the flight movements have not altered significantly is the decision by resource companies to spread the same number of workers over additional flights," an airport spokesperson said.
"Perth Airport is paid on a per passenger basis, not per flight movement."
Curtin University economist Michael Volgger, who specialises in tourism, said it was a huge ask to expect locals to fill the void left by interstate and overseas travellers.
"Visits to national parks and camping have been very much up; I’ve also heard from places like the Golden Outback, so places in the Wheatbelt, that they have been quite happy with the demand," he said.
"One provider told me just last week that they haven’t seen that strong a demand ever before."
“There are winners and there are losers, however overall tourism will be difficult when borders are closed.”
Curtin Uni tourism expert Michael Volgger
On the weekend, the state government poured another $3 million into its $6 million cheap airfares plan in a bid to send tourism north after a 73 per cent drop in business activity for June and July.
The Broome ‘boom’
The pearl in the Premier’s crown has been the sell-out destination of Broome.
Flights, accommodation, tours and hire cars have been snapped up and booked out for weeks, if not months, in advance, according to Australia’s North West Tourism chief executive Natasha Mahar.
“We’ve never seen anything like this – I think everyone’s in a little bit of shock up here because quite frankly Broome wasn’t expecting this kind of boom,” she said.
“There are people that would normally be going to Europe with their families and friends that are instead coming up north to Broome and to tick off some of those bucket list items like Horizontal Falls; and that’s not a cheap half-day tour.”
Broome, Kimberley & Beyond general manager Kathy Veech said she had booked luxury escapes through the Cable Beach Club or Kimberley Cruising valued from $4000 to $40,000.
All agreed Broome appeared to be the exception rather than the rule for the Kimberley, or even the broader North West.
“The whole region is mostly down year-on-year, without a doubt,” Ms Mahar said.
“But our heroes [Karijini and Horizontal Falls], whilst they’re not going to have the same kind of numbers that they’re used to having there, they’re doing better than any of us would have expected when we were having these conversations in March.”
Some North West tour operators haven’t opened up at all due to the uncertainty, like El Questro and the Gibb River Gorge, which will not open until April next year.
And many Melbourne families who had Kimberley reservations this year have shifted them to next, booking up most of the season, which could create future problems.
Popular beachside destinations Geraldton, Exmouth, Margaret River and Dunsborough were also reporting a surge in local holidaymakers, but the true numbers will not be known until a national visitor survey comes out in October.
But huge numbers do not necessarily deliver big dollars, according to the Tourism Council.
“You could have large numbers of visitors spending very little, which would mean less revenue to pay wages to keep people going,” Mr Hall said.
In the meantime, Mr McGowan planned to future-proof major tourism icons such as Kings Park, Margaret River, Karijini, Monkey Mia, the Pinnacles, Rottnest Island and Ningaloo, for when the state did reopen to travellers by spending up to $150 million on improvements.
“Western Australians are among the best travellers in the world and COVID-19 has not dimmed our enthusiasm for getting out and exploring new places and incredible locations, with this investment to boost the visitor experience while creating a pipeline of jobs in many industries all around the state,” Mr McGowan said.
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