Tourism bosses are calling for increased government support for wholesalers and operators, saying this “hidden” part of the industry will continue to struggle long after the airlines, travel agents and hotels return to normal trade.
A new $128 million government scheme through giving eligible travel agents one-off payments of up to $100,000 was welcome news for the sector this week.
But industry leaders said outbound travel operators and wholesalers were also on their knees as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said the payment, announced on Tuesday, “recognises that travel agents are operating in an exceptional set of circumstances where most are having to refund last year’s income while continuing to work with no additional income”.
The announcement of the scheme came in a week of mixed fortunes for the industry which saw some state borders re-open, but also confirmation that Qantas would be outsourcing more than 2000 ground support roles at Australian airports.
Council of Australian Tour Operators (CATO) Managing Director Brett Jardine told News Corp that much of the support focus to date had been on the inbound tourism sector, but it ultimately could not prosper without a healthy outbound sector.
Australians spent $52 billion on overseas travel in 2019, but as much as $20 billion of that money actually stayed in Australia, Mr Jardine said.
“As outbound travel operators, we are completely complementary to Australia’s inbound tourism sector, because at the end of the day … aeroplanes have got to have bums on seats in both directions. If there’s not people going out of Australia at the same time as people coming in, then aviation capacity is going to be reduced full stop,” he said.
“Yes some (money) goes out of Australia, of course, but a lot stays here, and that accounts for a lot of jobs.”
CATO has called for an industry extension of the JobKeeper program beyond March, and a $12 million grant from the government’s COVID Relief and Recovery Fund to aid business recovery.
“Ultimately if there’s no one developing, distributing or marketing product, retail travel agents have got nothing to sell. So our position is you’ve got to support the supply side that will in turn naturally underpin the retail side,” Mr Jardine said.
The industry had struggled with “a lack of understanding among bureaucrats and politicians”, Mr Jardine said, and in some cases even an attitude that it was their fault “for not being at the table in Canberra”.
“But the industry has survived on its own two feet forever. We’ve not needed to be there; we’ve not needed government handouts or support. Now in this time of crisis, yes we do,” he said.
But when meeting with politicians, he said, there was always “that a-ha moment where politicians go ‘I get it, I can see why you need the support’,” he added.
Travel wholesaler Dennis Bunnik said while the visible parts of the tourism industry such as hotels and attractions could “bounce back quickly,” for wholesalers and operators it would take much longer.
“In essence we’re the manufacturing sector of the industry,” he said. “We take all of those products, we put them together in unique combinations, and then we sell them through travel agents and online, and it’s only when the person actually travels that we make our money.”
As a result, the sector would need time to get back on its feet, Mr Bunnik said.
“We’re prepared for that; we’re just going to need a bit of assistance to help get through,” he said.
The millions of Australians who have travel credits for the overseas trips they could not take in 2020 were also invested in the survival of the outbound tourism sector, Mr Bunnik said, as it was the wholesalers and operators who held the key to unlocking those credits.
The $12 million that CATO has asked for from the government would help develop protocols for COVID-safe travel, an industry standard for booking terms and conditions, and training in crisis management, Mr Jardine said.
The government is considering CATO’s funding request.