Sixty per cent of tourism businesses will go bust unless the Federal Government throws a financial lifeline to the sector after the expiration of the JobKeeper program in March, industry insiders have warned.
Tourism bosses will hold crisis talks with Minister Dan Tehan on Wednesday, pleading the case for additional government support after March 28.
The meeting comes as a new campaign, called #SaveTheTravelIndustry, raises awareness of the sector’s plight.
A petition on change.org calling for JobKeeper to be extended for the tourism industry had attracted more than 15,000 supporters as of 5pm Tuesday.
Tom Manwaring, chair of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA), told News Corp the industry was in crisis.
“It will decimate the industry if there’s no further support after 1 April,” he said.
“We estimate the collapse could be as high as 60 per cent.”
While local tour operators enjoyed some periods of activity during the COVID downturn as borders reopened, Mr Manwaring said, international travel agents had had “no respite”.
Pre-COVID, three in four Australians used a travel agent when going overseas.
Mr Manwaring said these agents’ expertise would be needed once international travel resumed – but it was not possible to just “mothball” an entire industry in the meantime.
“It’s easy to say, turn the lights out and come back in 12 months, but all the staff who have got the experience will be gone; they’ll be off in other industries,” he said.
Dennis Bunnik, chairman of the Council of Australian Tour Operators (CATO), said it’s “not an industry you can turn off and on at will”.
“If you turn it off, you turn it off for good.”
Should Australian travel agencies fail, Mr Bunnik said, “large online operators from overseas will swoop in”.
“But there’ll be no jobs in Australia, and in the next crisis all these people will be on their own, and it will be DFAT having to pick up the pieces and help Australians in trouble,” he said.
“During this crisis the travel industry helped to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Australians from overseas without DFAT involvement at all. We can’t afford to lose these skills, we can’t afford to lose this industry, and really now it’s a matter of survival.”
Breakaway Travel in Sydney’s Western Suburbs has been a successful business for 45 years, but owner George Vella said without JobKeeper supporting his three remaining staff (down from eight), he’d be “struggling to keep up”.
“I’d be waiting for the next big bill to come in and that will be the one to take it over the line,” he said.
Mr Vella described the past year as a “nightmare”, and the situation had only been exacerbated by the opening and closing of state borders.
“We would have been better off doing nothing,” he said. Border issues had meant that some 80 per cent of bookings over the past four or five months had to be cancelled.
“It’s been such a frustrating time,” he said. “The whole country’s being ruined because of the Premiers’ decisions (on borders).”
Besides calling for federal government support and a consistent approach to borders from the state premiers, the campaign is also urging everyday Australians to use travel agents when booking their domestic holidays.
Mr Bunnik said such a move would help save jobs, but it was also in travellers’ interests.
“COVID is going to mean a significant period of uncertainty with changes in requirements and borders and procedures, and they can change very quickly,” he said. “One of the big advantages of booking through a locally based tour operator, agent or wholesaler is you’ve got somebody in your corner. You’ve got somebody who can help you navigate your way through those challenges and help you out.”
In a statement, Tourism Minister Dan Tehan suggested some continued support for the industry could be forthcoming, saying he would “continue to consult and work with the tourism sector across Australia, on a post-JobKeeper plan for tourism.”
The Federal Government had supported the industry during COVID-19 in other ways, he said, including a $5 million domestic holiday advertising campaign, $308 million for regional airlines, $128 million for the COVID-19 Consumer Travel Support Program and $50 million for the regions.
“To support travel agents specifically, we have already paid $54 million to travel agents from the $128 million targeted grant program and I encourage all eligible travel agents to make a grant application for funding,” Mr Tehan said.