Australian travel industry and coronavirus: Calls for government assistance

For the outbound travel business, an industry that sells journeys, the road back to prosperity is destined to be a rocky one, littered with untold obstacles and with no clear end in sight, as the fight to contain the coronavirus continues.

But tourism and travel industry leaders are tentatively considering what form a recovery may take, as well as its possible timing.

Behind the shock and despair in the broader tourism industry, the plight of which has been this week overshadowed by those of the high-profile Qantas and Virgin Australia, there are flickers of optimism that Australians will again embrace travel with the enthusiasm they've displayed in the recent past.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Australians, in a nation of 25 million, made more 11 million overseas trips annually, spending $64.2 billion, according to Tourism Research Australia, forming the foundations of an immensely lucrative market and placing the nation in the global top 10 for travel expenditure.

One of the most desperate challenges currently confronting the outbound travel industry, according to Jayson Westbury, chief executive of peak industry body the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, is convincing clients to postpone rather than cancel their already-booked trips.

"Most people if they want to cancel [holidays] are best placed to agree to a travel credit or a same trip next year and not ask for a refund," says Mr Westbury, whose members include many family-owned small businesses. "If everyone requests a refund, travel agents will be at great risk of not staying in business."

The uncertainty surrounding the timeframe for containing the pandemic and allowing normal life - and travel - to resume will make recovery difficult, though Mr Westbury believes that when that moment does emerge, the travel industry will rapidly rebound.

Mr Westbury says that AFTA has called on the Federal Government to provide a range of measures to support the travel industry, giving travel agents the chance to survive with sufficient funds to continue to run their businesses, refund money to clients where required and retain staff.

Dennis Bunnik, managing director of Adelaide-based Bunnik Tours, with more than 100 employees in Australia and overseas, says the main challenge in the past week has been ensuring the company's clients return home safely, with little time allowed for considering the future.

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"Border closures and airline suspension announcements are being made on an hourly basis at the moment, which is creating a huge logistical nightmare for the global travel industry," he says.

"Within this chaos there are travel professionals working day and night helping clients get home while at the same time they don't know if they themselves will have a job this time next week."

Mr Bunnik describes the global travel shutdown as unprecedented, with the potential to devastate his industry with a significant and permanent loss of jobs. Similarly to Mr Westbury, he considers the only solution to the crisis is for clients to accept credit vouchers for future travel or for the Federal Government to agree to underwrite refunds.

The most difficult aspect of the travel industry crisis is the fact that there is no indication as to when international borders will reopen, says Mr Bunnik, with the industry "desperate" for the Federal Government to provide some sort of indication as to when travel bans may be lifted.

"The Federal Government needs to understand the dire situation the travel industry is in and that if the outbound travel industry collapses, there will be no aviation industry to bring tourists into Australia, thereby killing the inbound tourism industry as well."

An additional impediment to the industry's recovery will be the ability for clients to secure transparent travel insurance in light of the pandemic crisis, with Mr Bunnik viewing the reform of the travel insurance industry as one of the most vital issues to emerge from the crisis.

Yet despite the challenges in restoring the travel industry to its former robustness, Mr Bunnik is confident about the place international holidays occupy in the Australian psyche, with travel "as much a part of the Australian culture as going to the footy or enjoying a sausage sizzle".

One of the hardest-hit segments of the travel industry has been the cruise industry, with passenger ships around the world caught in the crosshairs of the coronavirus. Until recent weeks the industry was enjoying an extraordinary boom, leading to Australia boasting the biggest market penetration in the world for cruising.

Joel Katz, managing director Australasia of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), says that the next challenge for the industry will be to plan its revival while maintaining a focus on the health and safety of passengers and crew.

Mr Katz shares the widespread confidence in the Australian travelling public, who he says have demonstrated themselves to be prolific travellers and have shown great resilience. But in order to revive the market, government support will be required.

"Measures that have been announced recently in the Federal Government's stimulus package will be of benefit to many tourism businesses, such as the initiatives to boost cash flow and facilitate loan arrangements.

Although overseas travel will take time to return, domestic holidays, including Australia-based cruising, are likely to be the first to make a comeback.

Nick Baker, chief executive of Outdoria, an Australiasian travel and leisure company and a former Tourism Australia chief marketing executive, says the period of isolation imposed on Australia will lead to a desire to escape on holiday as soon as possible.

"People will want to get out of the routine imposed [by the pandemic] and in many cases this will focus on the beach and bush to escape their house or apartment, particularly if we go into a stronger lockdown," he says.

"First will come the domestic holidays, perhaps road trips, as air travel starts to return. This will be followed by international with a far stronger focus on personal health and safety than has perhaps previously been the case."

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