Australia summer holidays: Staff shortage for regions as domestic tourism booms

Regional tourism operators are bracing for a major nationwide staff shortage as domestic visitors flood into regional towns this summer.

Some destinations are tracking to hit record numbers of travellers as Australians who would usually head overseas are forced to holiday locally.

But Victorian Tourism Industry Council chief executive Felicia Mariani said there are not enough workers to meet the demand.

"This is a national crisis facing the industry, because so many people have left tourism and hospitality to find better surety of work," she said. "The brain drain from our industry, the intellectual capital we've lost from the tourism sector is immense, not just in Victoria."

The G'Day Group, which runs 280 holiday parks around the country, is predicting that regional Australia will have its biggest influx of Christmas visitors on record.

"We're readying for the busiest school holiday period we've ever seen, and while there is still accommodation available, it won't be long until it's hard to get a booking," chief executive Grant Wilckens said.

Compared with this time last year, the group's holiday park bookings are up 180 per cent in NSW, 130 per cent in Victoria and 200 per cent in Queensland.

His company is also struggling to find enough qualified workers, with 160 roles still up for grabs.

Key to the domestic tourism rebound are the wealthy Australians who usually spend up on expensive overseas holidays in Europe, the United States and Asia. But with international travel banned, many are directing that money into regional destinations such as Byron Bay in NSW and the Grampians in Victoria.

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Another factor of the booming demand is the likelihood that many people delayed taking annual leave this year, Mr Wilckens said.

Holidaymakers who are yet to book should either avoid the peak period of Christmas Day to mid-January, or avoid popular spots such as Byron, Coffs Harbour and Merimbula. He suggested somewhere like Jindabyne, a traditional winter destination that is less busy in summer.

While city hotels are struggling with low occupancies during a usually busy time of year, the regions are flourishing.

On the NSW Far North Coast, luxury Byron at Byron resort is almost fully booked until February. General manager Jordan Rodgers said the region was experiencing high levels of occupancy beyond the usual school holiday peaks.

"At the moment Byron Bay is attracting the affluent seasoned traveller who's hungry for a travel experience that's got more to offer than most other destinations," he said. "While international borders are closed, I'm predicting we won't see those shoulder and off-peak periods for some period of time."

Ballina-Byron airport reported a passenger decrease of just 16 per cent in September compared with last year, despite the border closures shutting out Melbourne flights. There are even two new direct routes to Canberra and Dubbo.

Airport manager Julie Stewart cited federal transport statistics which show Ballina airport was the fifth-busiest regional airport in Australia in August, up from 33rd last year.

On the NSW South Coast, summer accommodation bookings are up two or three times compared with previous years.

The Holidays Collection owner Craig McIntosh manages 250 short-term rental properties across the South Coast and Southern Highlands and said the heightened interest was "phenomenal".

"All the property owners are laughing at the moment. It's like an ATM machine, they're pulling money out of the system. It's been a boom year for them."

But he said there were some "frayed nerves" among neighbours, with a noticeable increase in "problematic groups" of people.

"A lot of those people might have otherwise been in Fiji, Hawaii, Bali or on a cruise ship getting tanked with other people doing the same things. Now they're in a beach house down on the South Coast."

In Victoria, Grampians Tourism boss Marc Sleeman is expecting "an extremely busy lead-up to Christmas".

"I'd be forecasting a 20 per cent increase in visitation into a region that was already quite busy."

He said operators' phones started ringing the minute Premier Daniel Andrews announced that Melburnians could leave the city on November 8.

"Some of the challenges will be managing the increased visit levels around restrictions in restaurants," Mr Sleeman said.

He said the visitors' centre in Halls Gap would be directing people to different locations around the national park depending on the time of day, to avoid a crush at popular lookouts.

The hospitality staff shortage affecting local businesses has become critical. "If you jump on any community Facebook pages there are five or six restaurants looking for front of house staff at the moment," he said.

In Victoria's south-west, the demand has been more patchy, but Great Ocean Road Resort managing director Damien Cerantonio said his summer bookings were strong.

"The main difference this year is we are getting a slightly higher rate and the length of stay has increased," he said. "Probably the unknown now is how deep a summer we run."

Mr Cerantonio is also struggling with the skills shortage as he ramps up capacity.

"One advantage of COVID is people are looking to move down to the regions away from Melbourne. That certainly brings a larger pool of qualified workers"

It's unclear how much the reopening of state borders will affect local demand. Now that Tasmania is open to NSW residents, airfare comparison website Skyscanner said fares from Sydney to Hobart are up to 56 per cent cheaper than this time last year.

One thing all regional operators agree on is that the closure of international borders is excellent for business. But VTIC's Ms Mariani said state borders must open for the visitor economy to properly thrive.

"On a selfish note, while the [state] borders are closed it means we've got a captive audience of Victorians travelling around their own backyard. But for us to have a true recovery in the tourism industry, we can't rely on intrastate tourism alone - no state can. We have to get the borders open."

Just don't expect to get a last-minute booking for New Year's Eve.

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