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Australia's second wave of COVID-19 crashes over domestic tourism hopes

People's Daily Online

(Xinhua) 11:18, July 31, 2020

Set on spacious beaches and showcasing the region's many tourist draws, including the Great Barrier Reef and Gold Coast-- smiling "Queenslanders" promised Australians a break from the global pandemic and the opportunity to travel again in safety.

However, this is just a beautiful wish depicted in a bright and upbeat on-screen ad campaign. The reality is, on Wednesday Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk declared Australia's most populous city Sydney a COVID-19 hotspot -- barring anyone who had been there in the previous two weeks from entering her state.

Since COVID-19 struck and effectively steamrolled international tourism, thousands of operators in Queensland's billion-dollar industry have been weighing up the possibility of domestic visitation to fill the hole.

However, a sudden surge in cases in the State of Victoria and emerging clusters in New South Wales' (NSW) state capital of Sydney, mean that close to half of the population now pose more risk than reward.

On Thursday, Victoria recorded its deadliest day of the pandemic with 13 virus-related fatalities, on top of a record 723 new cases. Meanwhile Queensland recorded just three new cases, which were all of known origin.

Paul Lim is an experienced scuba diver and general manager of Pro Dive Cairns in Queensland, offering dive training and tours on the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef.

Lim told Xinhua that business was currently at around 30 percent or less of normal and composed partially of interstate tourists, as well as some overseas travellers who were waiting out the virus in Australia.

"With the domestic borders opening up, we were seeing a good flow of traffic to our business, which is good, but nowhere near obviously the capacity that we were getting pre-COVID," Lim said.

"Obviously now we'll get some cancellations from the greater Sydney region of customers that can no longer get up here."

Lim said that while the decision to ban visitors from Sydney was certainly bad for his immediate business, he understood the practical health reasons behind doing so.

"We've seen what's happened down south in NSW and Victoria and it would be good to not have that jump one more border again," he said.

With business way down, many in the tourism industry have survived only thanks to stimulus payments from the federal government, including the Jobkeeper program, which pays to keep workers on the books and businesses in a state of hibernation.

There are also those who have adapted to the strange times by restructuring to suit local tastes.

Stephen Arnerich, owner of Runaway Tours, which operates out of Sydney, told Xinhua that his company generally caters to the International market, but with the global pandemic has been forced to look closer to home.

"Normally, our business is around 95 percent overseas visitors. We get a lot of Chinese businessmen, we get a lot of cruise ship passengers from America," Arnerich explained.

"Because of that our core business is not working at the moment, so we're focusing on the domestic market, trying to get people from interstate to go on some of our more unusual tours."

Because Australians are more familiar with classic attractions such as the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, Arnerich and his team have had to branch out into designing more unique getaways, focusing on elements such as wildlife watching and wine tours.

Regardless, the latest spike and simmering case numbers in Sydney are putting Arnerich's hard work at risk.

"Obviously we're not getting any Victorians up here, Queenslanders are a bit shy of coming down so we're not getting many visitors to the state," Arnerich said.

The uncertainty, which has typified the virus pandemic is adding to the difficulty of businesses to make a plan and have anything like a clear picture into their future.

"It depends on when they can get a vaccine, we've talked with Tourism Australia and they're predicting the international market to return in mid-2021," Arnerich said.

"For the domestic market, if we can suppress COVID-19 around Australia then hopefully that will improve within the next few months, depending what happens."

Regardless, few people expect domestic visitors to fully plug the hole left by overseas tourists, and with case numbers rising in NSW and Victoria, Australia's diverse tourism industry may have to adapt to the strange times once again.

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