Australian domestic tourism and coronavirus pandemic: A unique travel opportunity is being ruined by border skirmishes

It's often remarked that one of the differences between Americans and Australians is that the former prefer to see their country first and the latter elect to see their nation last.

Now, in an opportunity only a pandemic can provide, Australian tourism is presented with the unique chance to persuade many of those laggard Australians who, if not for international travel bans would normally be choosing to holiday overseas this year, to experience their own backyard.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, despite widespread criticism, is steadfastly refusing to open the state's borders to domestic travel until at least September. She is being reminded by desperate tourism industry figures that about 10 million individual trips are taken overseas by Australians each year.

Such a statistic represents an opportunity to showcase Australia as a holiday destination to potentially millions of our effectively captive compatriots, who can crucially travel during the prime winter school holiday period. Many of them might otherwise be inclined to delay seeing their own country until they achieve Grey Nomad status.

But Premier Palaszczuk, who faces an election later this year, has declared that, based on the advice of her own chief medical officer, she will only open her state's borders to citizens of the two most populous states when they have demonstrated successive daily zero COVID-19 infection rates, even though Queensland itself is still recording cases.

Milla Milla Falls, Far North Queensland.

Milla Milla Falls, Far North Queensland. Photo: iStockphoto

The issue of border openings is mired in parochialism and an over-abundance of caution. It's an echo of the rivalries that prevailed between Australian states over the securing of major events a decade or so ago. The nation's premiers have succumbed, in their admirable efforts to protect public health, to a level of bickering and intransigence that now seriously threatens the viability of tourism as an industry.

It's the tourism equivalent of the confusing and commerce-limiting summer time-zones that are a result of  differing stances on daylight saving.

Premier Palaszczuk has been warned by tourism operators in her state, which is greatly dependent on domestic and international visitors, that a delay in the resumption of interstate travel until September would be devastating to businesses already on the financial edge.


Such operators have not only suffered from the effects of COVID-19 but also from the downturn due to the bushfires following the adverse publicity they engendered here and abroad.

Any September restart would not only result in a loss of the lucrative winter high season when sun-starved southerners holiday in warmer climes, but would also narrow that window of opportunity before Australians start to travel overseas again  once borders between New Zealand and the Pacific open.

Aside from saving tourism businesses from bankruptcy and protecting thousands of jobs, state premiers, including those in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania (and for that matter the chief minister of the Northern Territory) must look ahead to the eventual return of inbound international tourism, which tends to be more valuable than even domestic travel.

This is to ensure that prospective overseas visitors (who will be difficult to win back as it is, especially those from an irascible China) are not confronted by a diminished tourism offering with fewer hotels, attractions and experiences, let alone the sight of embarrassingly shuttered ones.

Australia has achieved a remarkable level of COVID-19 containment. It is rightly the envy of other nations still burdened by high infection and death rates, yet some of those nations are  already reopening for tourism because of its importance to their weakened economies.

A state like Queensland may still be perfect one day and beautiful the next, as its evergreen slogan declares, but waiting to achieve the equivalent of COVID-19 perfection before opening its borders, , while entirely worthy, is not in the present and future interests of the nation.

Anthony Dennis is the travel editor of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald

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