Australian tourists during coronavirus (COVID-19): The destinations missing us most

Until the pandemic struck Jon Handlery's 377-room, three-star digs on San Francisco's plumb Union Square location, it was so popular with Australian guests that it could well have been rechristened "Hotel Australia".

After Mr Handlery and his late father, Paul, spent years nurturing and developing this travel market, Australians remained the Handlery Union Square Hotel's leading source of overseas guests for a decade.

Built in 1908, now is the first time in its history, earthquakes and all, that the establishment's had to close, albeit temporarily.

"It shows me that my annual trips Down Under paid off," he said, referring to his regular sojourns to attend travel trade events in Australia. "This past February was my 35th trip to Oz. I just wish that when your dollar was at 48 cents to the Greenback that I'd bought a house there."

While border closures affecting Australia's two most populous states are preventing lucrative domestic tourism dollars from flowing through the economy and threatening the local industry's future, overseas operators have been hit hard from the closure of Australia's international borders.

Many nations and operators overseas have built their destination travel businesses around prolific and passionate travellers from Australia. Collectively, they've reaped the $A65 billion that Australian annually splashed on overseas holidays.

Mr Handlery's appreciation of Australia - a country of 25 million whose people took more than 10 million overseas trips annually pre-COVID-19 - is reflected in Australia's impact on tourism to his state of California as a whole.

The 614,000 Australians who visited there last year, according to research by Visit California, the state's main tourism marketing body, spent a whopping $US1.3 billion in 2019. This amount was on track to increase to $US1.435 billion in 2023 before the pandemic hit . Overall, Australia is California's third biggest international in terms of visitation and the fifth in terms of spend.

Even so, overseas destinations are now considering whether they can afford to maintain a marketing presence in Australia with NYC & Company, the peak tourism marketing body for New York, already quietly withdrawing its Sydney-based representation because of the international border closure.

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The value of Australian tourists overseas is further exemplified by Ireland where Australia ranked tenth in terms of number of visitors but sixth in respect to how much they spent while in the Emerald Isle.

Sofia Hansson, manager of Tourism Ireland Australia & New Zealand, says Australians spent an average of 13 nights in Ireland on a typical holiday and liked to explore the whole island, including Northern Ireland.

"Australian travellers remain a very attractive source market for the island of Ireland and are important for the Irish economy as they frequently stay longer, they visit in the off-season and they spend more than travellers from other markets," she said.

"The interest from Australians for travel to the island of Ireland has been growing steadily in recent years prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, so Australia will continue to be an important market to invest in with potential for growth in the future."

Elsewhere, 354,372 Australians visited Canada in 2019, up 1.5 per cent on the previous year, with Australia ranked sixth among all international markets.

We will be sorely missed. Destination Canada, which still maintains a presence in Australia, estimates the loss of revenue to the Canadian economy from the Australian market will be more than $C455 million ($475 million) for the first three quarters of this year alone, compared with $C612 million in earnings last year.

Of course, the upside for Australia itself is that much expenditure previously directed to now unattainable overseas destinations should eventually find its way to domestic coffers, if only the nation's borders can be safely and permanently reopened.

The absence of Australian tourists is being felt acutely in poorer, tourism-dependent Pacific island nations such as Fij. It relies on international tourism for 40 per cent of its GDP. It welcomed 900,000 overseas visitors in 2018-19 with more than 370,000 of them from Australia, which is its leading market, well ahead of New Zealand. Fiji is desperately awaiting news of a travel bubble with Australia or New Zealand or both and has even attempted a self-styled "bula bubble".

Fantasha Lockington, chief executive of the Suva-based Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association, says Fiji's branding as a destination is founded on its friendly people and safety for visitors but it's also critical that the nation also keep its own citizens safe.

"Time is not really on our side," she said. With 115,000 people out of a total population of nearly 900,000 now unemployed, plus little wage support, life is getting a lot harder for many and little wage the longer it takes tourism to return, she said.

"On the plus side, we have an abundance of accessible, arable land and very supportive communal, cultural and family networks," Ms Lockington said. "The unemployed are planting, fishing and just getting by. But we have no doubt the effects of the pandemic are taking financial and psychological tolls."

Back in the US, Mr Handlery attributes the success of his San Francisco hotel with Australians to its moderate rates and attractive central location near the city's famed cable cars.

"It'd got a point at the hotel that when we heard an American accent in the lobby we'd jokingly say to them, "hey, you're not meant to be here'."

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