Queensland border reopening: Tourists head to tropical north, but operators still struggle

The first interstate holiday visitors in 15 weeks arrived in Cairns on Friday when Jetstar flight JQ952 landed at 12.10pm with 177 passengers on board, followed 30 minutes later by a Qantas flight with 160 passengers.

Tourism Tropical North Queensland chief executive Mark Olsen said the first interstate flight was a significant step in the pathway to recovery for the Cairns region which generated $3.5 billion into the regional economy in the 12 months before borders closed.

It's been a rough few months for the region's tourism businesses. Piers Cottew took over Cairns Beaches Flash Packers at the end of February and within weeks had to close his doors in the first round of restrictions. He spent the following months renovating, with the help of some Spanish backpackers who found themselves stranded.

Cottew is open for business now, but says most of that business is still coming from within Queensland, "mostly people from the Gold Coast, Brisbane and the Tablelands. We've had some enquiries from New South Wales but mostly it's people who are already in Queensland."

He said businesses in and around Cairns are starting to gain momentum with day spas, bars and restaurants open and the monthly Palm Cove market "packed" last Sunday.

However, with the demands of social distancing still in place, tour operators who run boat trips out to the Great Barrier Reef don't yet have the numbers they need to make business viable, he said.

TTNQ's Mark Olsen said COVID-19 had cost the region $1 billion in visitor expenditure to date and that figure could be as high as $2.2 billion by December.

"We hope interstate visitors wanting to feel temperatures above 20°C will fly into Cairns to explore the Great Barrier Reef, the world's oldest rainforest and the accessible outback," he said.

"In the 12 months before our borders closed, we had 332,000 visitors from New South Wales, which was a 24.7 per cent increase from the previous 12 months, showing that interest in the Cairns and Great Barrier Reef region is high. We have steady interstate bookings for the school holidays in September, but there are still opportunities for couples to visit in August," Olsen said.

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Tourists from Victoria make up roughly 20 per cent of the numbers at Port Douglas and tropical north Queensland. Without those and international visitors, they're running at about 50 per cent of their normal capacity, according to Liz Inglis at Tourism Tropical North Queensland.

Aircraft are also returning to the skies with some momentum. Virgin Australia's Matthew Ongarello said when they relaunched the first of their Sydney to Cairns services it sold out within hours. The airline is running a daily service on the route from Monday, with sale fares starting at $139.

Queensland's Whitsundays region is the destination most reliant on tourism in Australia, according to Tash Wheeler, Tourism Whitsundays chief executive.

"The industry represents one in three jobs and accounts for 40 per cent of all visitation to the $6.3 billion Queensland Great Barrier Reef market. With perfect warm winter weather, we're excited to welcome our southern visitors back. Fortuitously Tourism Whitsundays recently launched the Escape Winter campaign."

That offers deals with up to 50 per cent off accommodation and experiences.

"Our thoughts are with our Victorian friends; we will save a spot on the beach for when they can travel again," Wheeler said.

Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ) chief executive Leanne Coddington said their consumer research had shown strong demand for travel but also that health and safety was top of mind for travellers.

"We have worked with businesses around the state to share the information and requirements on how to be COVID-safe, and once they have the required documentation in place they can display a Good to Go 'stamp' in their marketing to help assure travellers they will be booking a safe experience," Ms Coddington said.

Over and beyond the required safety procedures and documentation, some of Queensland's tourism businesses have taken additional steps to ensure peace-of-mind for travellers:

Instead of their regular guided small group bus tours, Brett's Outback Tasting Adventures in north Queensland has introduced tag-along tasting adventures, where guests are equipped with a CB radio to listen to the guide's commentary as they follow in their own car.

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