Australia COVID-19 cases: We've squandered our advantage as a COVID-safe destination

Opinion

Once upon a time there was a faraway land called Australia that was the envy of much of the world for its management and containment of the big bad disease from the north.

Then, in the space of just weeks, that seemingly magical land-cum-one-time-hermit-kingdom went from hero to zero.

The country's hapless leaders began to tell their subjects, that although, yes, there were now a lot of cases and it was hard to get your hands on a RAT, we were still better off compared with many other nations.

But the truth is that the fairytale has morphed into an ignominious nightmare, with our once largely unfettered ability to move around the world, let alone our own nation, being seriously and increasingly curtailed.

Then again, who is to say that a holiday in Thailand or Fiji is now generally any riskier than a domestic vacation?

Our international standing and reputation is arguably at an all time low for reasons too numerous to detail here (you probably know most of them by now). That knockabout, albeit dubious, "where the bloody hell are ya" mantra, simply will not resonate overseas any longer.

And while a recommended ban on Australians travelling to COVID-riddled Europe, as advocated by the Council of the European Union at the weekend, may seem as rich as a Nick Kyrgios supporter filing a noise complaint, it has potentially serious ramifications – not only for Australians wanting to travel overseas, but also for the inbound, now inert, tourism industry which, before the pandemic, attracted close to 10 million overseas visitors.

Domestic and international tourism was worth $122 billion to the economy in 2018-19 and the jobs it generated were far greater than those created by the mining sector.

Advertisement

Indeed, pre-pandemic Australia was one of the highest yielding destinations in the world, according to Tourism Australia, with international visitors spending $44.6 billion in 2018-19.

How the mighty have fallen.

The tourism industry, and for that matter governments, had hoped Australia's reputation as a COVID-safe and responsible destination would serve us extremely well when we finally got around to enticing overseas visitors back to Australia.

It was to be our not-so-secret weapon to revive an industry with a grossly underestimated contribution to the national bottom line.

But it looks like we may well have squandered our advantage by adopting a rushed and ill-advised UK-style "freedom day" approach to the virus, as we opened up (apart from Western Australia) at the same time as a new and more contagious variant emerged, particularly in heavily populated NSW.

Tourism Australia, the nation's principal taxpayer-funded travel marketing body, is switching its focus from domestic tourism back to the international market just as the Prime Minister Scott Morrison tries to encourage backpackers to return to Australia as a means of boosting a challenged and beleaguered workforce. Good luck.

Combined with the Council of the EU's recommendation to block Australians visiting Europe due to the large number of cases here, the US recently elevated the land Down Under to the top tier on its list of high-risk COVID countries.

Now we're apparently no better at managing the virus than Albania, Botswana, Haiti, Somalia and the Ukraine, to name a few.

Yes, it's true that some European countries, such as Norway, Switzerland and (ahem), Serbia, make the same list, but it doesn't make us feel any better, let alone improve our tourism prospects or reputation.

Maybe we did Novak Djokovic a big favour in sending him home, if only for the sake of his health. It'd be a great help if he knows any would-be backpackers willing to pick peaches and spend some money at the local cafe.

Anthony Dennis is the editor of Traveller which appears each weekend in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

See also: Worst tourism ads ever: The shows and movies that make you want to stay away

See also: Australia's vaccine certificates won't work in Europe, unless you do this

Comments