Queensland, beautiful one day, busy the next?

With most internal borders open or about to be, the domestic travel horizon broadens and tourism operators are looking for some light on that horizon, particularly with the absence of international business.

John O'Sullivan, a former Tourism Australia managing director, is chief executive of Experience Co which runs reef, island and rainforest tours and skydiving experiences in Australia and New Zealand.

Pre-COVID, international guests accounted for around 70 per cent of their tour business on Queensland's Great Barrier Reef, 65 per cent of skydiving business in Australia and up to 92 per cent in New Zealand.

"We're going to have stronger domestic business coming out of this, which will be a good thing and I think there will be a propensity for more domestic holidays in the medium term," O'Sullivan said.

"I think Australians will probably look inwards at domestic holidays before taking that step and going overseas. People will be looking at outbound travel and thinking 'right do I really want to go there. What was that country's record in managing and containing COVID?'"

With the border announcements this week, and even without the international business, O'Sullivan said their skydiving operations took more bookings than the same day last year, pre-COVID.

"One of our trade partners had one of their busiest days on record yesterday and close to 70 per cent [of that business] was to North Queensland. So that's telling us that there is huge pent-up demand for domestic travel in Australia, as well as experiences.

"We're very confident for our business, the way the booking patterns run, skydive is at its most popular from this month through to the end of January and we know that North Queensland traditionally has a strong period from the December school holidays through to the end of January.

"We're feeling pretty good going in to this, we'll have to see how it goes, but we're not going to leave anything on the table."


COVID-19 forced Experience Co to stand down or reduce the hours of half its staff. "It's been incredibly trying for them," O'Sullivan said. But it was also an opportunity to streamline.

"The business that has emerged is smaller in overheads and administrative structures, but we've come out of it with improved systems, a new reservation system for example, and we've got a better approach to our trade partnerships."

Dealing with government has had its ups and downs.

"We've been very thankful, as has the industry, of support given from the Federal level through programs like Jobkeeper," O'Sullivan said.

At state level, "like many in the industry, we found the Queensland response and the West Australian response hard on our business. All of us are trying to make what we can out of the domestic market and when you isolate a state, that makes your job all the harder."

On the upside, Experience Co was able to take advantage of some Queensland government programs "that were very beneficial to the tourism industry."

That included a $1 million grant from the Queensland Tourism Icons Program and $3 million from the Growing Tourism Infrastructure Fund to rebuild their Great Barrier Reef pontoon off Moore Reef, offshore from Cairns.

"So, like many, while we were frustrated by having borders shut, we were also a beneficiary of their economic response," O'Sullivan said.

"As an Australian, sitting back, we can be critical of border policies and critical of the way governments approach things, but I would never have wanted to be in any country other than Australia."

In Queensland's Whitsunday Region, they're equally eager to welcome domestic visitors, but Tash Wheeler, chief executive of Tourism Whitsundays, says the greatest challenge could be ensuring the workforce is there to meet the demand.

"Our fear is that some products may not be able to enjoy the full demand of consumers over the next few months due to the challenges with filling tourism jobs," she said.

She says that pre-COVID, Australians spent more than $60 billion on international travel. "We just need to capture .0016 per cent of this market to really see our region thrive."

She hopes their "Wonders of The Whitsundays" campaign targeting potential visitors from NSW and Victoria will drive strong bookings.

Further north, Tourism Tropical North Queensland says there are "125 million reasons to be happy" about welcoming visitors from Sydney and Victoria from December 1.

In a normal year, Visitors from Victoria and NSW inject $50 million a month into the region. "The announcements, a full week in advance of the easing of the restrictions, mean travellers can book with confidence," chief executive Mark Olsen said.

"Our destination has the opportunity for a $125 million boost to visitor spend for the summer holidays which will support hundreds of jobs in our community at a time when it is needed most," he said.

They're coming from behind in their recovery bid though. International visitors typically spend $4 million a day in the region and most local operators missed the normally-strong domestic winter.

See experienceco.com, tourismwhitsundays.com.au, tourism.tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au