Quarantine hotels in Australia: Hotels start returning to normal

Before the pandemic the first person a guest encountered at a five-star hotel was traditionally a top-hat wearing driveway commissionaire. But in recent times it's likely to be a baseball cap-wearing police officer or a camouflage overalls-attired member of the defence forces.

The latter emergency personnel have been responsible for overseeing the federal and state governments' massive mandatory hotel quarantining of returning Australian travellers program since the onset of COVID-19. But the owner of several major establishments considers that the time has arrived for hotels to begin checking out of the multi-million dollar program.

Dr Jerry Schwartz, the owner of 15 hotels, including the Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour and The Victoria Hotel in Melbourne, all of which were assigned for quarantine guests, says that with domestic travel beginning to resume, hotels should start reopening fully to the general public again - but without the conspicuous and possibly off-putting, constabulary and military presence.

"The problem for hotels is that you can't really be available for both quarantine guests and 'normal' guests'," he says, "because the hotel is effectively controlled by the army and police, and that's not really the ideal welcoming party for leisure guests."

Dr Schwartz says with interstate and territory borders finally reopening and some levels of business and leisure travel returning, it will be necessary for governments to assign specific and fewer hotels for quarantine.

The NSW government alone has spent more than $50 million of taxpayer funds on the mandatory program which has accommodated about 25,000 returning travellers and has been highly-successful from a public health standpoint.

However, as the numbers of returning Australian travellers dwindle over coming months, Dr Schwartz says that only one or two hotels in each city may be required with one University of NSW epidemiologist, Professor Marylouise McLaws, even calling for facilities on Christmas Island to be reopened for quarantine purposes.

Despite its success the hotel quarantine program has not proved foolproof with two Melbourne establishments, not owned by Dr Schwartz, recently being subject to outbreaks of COVID-19, the Stamford Plaza Melbourne and Rydges on Swanston.

Dr Schwartz says hotels will need to "wean themselves off quarantine business" though "80 per cent occupancy with quarantine business at a low rate may be more attractive than 14 per cent without quarantine business, even at a higher rate."

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Indeed, far from being a windfall for hotel owners, the rates paid by governments during the quarantine program have been relatively low with most hotels likely to soon seek to return to a more traditional accommodation model and, importantly, higher rates. However, occupancies remain low with one of Dr Schwartz's Sydney hotels reaching only a 14 per cent occupancy last weekend.

Dean Long, the chief executive of the Accommodation Australia Association, says that rather than being wound back demand for the hotel quarantine program may in fact continue should large numbers of international students be allowed to return to Australia and self-isolate before resuming their studies.

Despite hotels being able to remain open to quarantined guests, the financial impact on the industry has been devastating, says Mr Long, with revenue overall down 85 per cent and occupancies lower then 10 per cent.

"By the end of year the hotel market will at best be 45 per cent of what it was in February," he says. "This is because corporate [guests] will take significantly longer to come back than leisure and you can't make any money if your hotel is full only 28 per cent of the time."

The accommodation industry has also been angered by a move by local councils in Queensland for their state government to implement a bed tax at a time when most state borders remain closed and international tourism is banned.

In addition to quarantined travellers, Dr Schwartz's hotels (which no longer accommodate returning travellers as part of the COVID-19 program) also took in homeless people and other emergency guests at the Ibis Sydney World Square and Mercure Sydney.

"Overall, the system worked well, particularly from a medical point of view," he says. "That was reflected recently when out of nine coronavirus cases detected in NSW, eight were picked up during hotel isolation, which prevented community transmission."

See also: Choose your sanitiser: What it's like to stay in a Aussie hotel now

See also: Masks on, seats full: Our reporter flies the Sydney-Melbourne route

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