Australian tourism and coronavirus: Isolated resorts unlikely to enjoy domestic tourism boom

Although the immense open spaces surrounding Australia's remote luxury resorts render them perfect places to ride out a pandemic, the country's far-flung accommodation has become a victim of the tyranny of social distance.

The sudden closure of borders, both international and domestic, the crisis in the aviation industry and the declaration of biosecurity zones designed to protect vulnerable Indigenous communities, has meant that few, if any, remote resorts will open when domestic travel resumes.

One of Australia's most internationally-recognised luxury lodges, El Questro Homestead, located in the Kimberley region of Western Australia about 100 kilometres from Kununurra, will be closed until 2021. Uncertainty around the restart of domestic tourism and a ban on international visitors due to the coronavirus pandemic appear to have contributed to the decision at a lodge where room rates start from $2090 a night.

Spectacularly-positioned on a dramatic clifftop overlooking the Chamberlain River, El Questro Homestead's owners, the US-based Delaware North group, describes it on the property's website as "an oasis of privacy" amid one of Australia's "wildest and most beautiful regions."

Elsewhere, Wild Bush Luxury, the owner of the acclaimed Arkaba Station in South Australia's Flinders Ranges, about four-and-a-half-hours' drive north of Adelaide, and Bamurru Plains in the Northern Territory, three hours south-east of Darwin, has also closed both properties for the year. It blames the uncertainty around domestic travel and the ban on foreign tourists for the decision.

"My gut feeling is that people in Australia will be cautious about travelling," said Charlie Carlow, the chief executive of Wild Bush Luxury. "[In a normal year] domestically we're strong up to July and from August onwards its dominated by international tourists. In the end it would cost me more to open than it will to close."

However, the biggest COVID-19 casualty among luxury outback resorts may prove to be the most internationally famous. Ayers Rock Resort, situated about 20 kilometres from Uluru in the Northern Territory - one of the least densely-populated parts of the globe - hopes to reopen this year but first a number of challenging issues will need to be resolved.

The Indigenous community of Mutitjulu, whose people are traditional custodians of Uluru and joint managers of the national park, is located at the eastern end of Uluru and close to the resort.

Grant Hunt, the chief executive of resort owners Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, said a biosecurity zone to protect vulnerable Indigenous communities from COVID-19 would need to be lifted before the resort couldreopen.


Northern Territory government-imposed border restrictions would also need to be relaxed to allow domestic visitors to Uluru and for airlines to recommence services. Ninety per cent of visitors arrive at Ayers Rock Resort by air, with Alice Springs 443 kilometres away by road. To complicate matters, the resort may need to rely on flights operated by the Qantas Group with Virgin Australia's future shrouded in uncertainty.

Mr Hunt said: "The Northern Territory Government's [COVID-19] 'roadmap' has the biosecurity zone being relaxed on June 18. However, this will be dependent upon conditions at the time. We would like to think that when both of the borders are open and air services are reinstated [we can aim] for a September recommencement, however, we are constantly told that these aspirations are ambitious."

The resort, which is officially classified as the town of Yulara with a population of little more than 1000, normally employs a 900-strong labour force and consists of five hotels and a campground. Since the pandemic the workforce has been reduced to about 200, many of whom are working reduced hours. Visa-holders from foreign countries, who have nowhere to go, have remained, working or not.

When it does reopen, Mr Grant said that the resort would be perfectly-suited to social distancing guidelines as it's laid out around a 2.5 kilometre ring road with wide pedestrian thoroughfares and natural landscape in between. Additionally, a major feature of Ayers Rock Resort is its outdoor dining venues, including the Sounds of Silence night-time experience, located in the desert surrounding Uluru.

Indeed, James Baillie, who operates the upmarket Longitude 131 resort near Uluru, which hosts just 32 guests and costs $4590 a person for a minimum three night stay, said that the "higher end you go, the less people" ensuring such establishments were ideal for social-distancing.

Mr Hunt said that despite the generous subsidies and concessions provided by governments and financial institutions, solvency issues remain a concern for all tourism businesses.

"It costs money to stay shut. It costs money to reactivate. For many, the costs of opening up again will cost more than remaining shut, at least for a few months. So even when the crisis is easing, businesses will still be under enormous pressure," Mr Hunt said.

"Regional Australia - particularly places like Uluru, the Whitsundays, Kangaroo Island, Kakadu and the Kimberley - are particularly reliant on aviation access. Air capacity is the key to a relatively quick revival. Without it, we may as well not open."

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