Kylie Minogue's tourism campaign
The campaign is dubbed Matesong and features a star studded cast.
A photo of a kangaroo leaping across the pages of British newspapers is the sort of free publicity that tourism authorities usually crave.
Except the animal was another victim of the months-long bushfire crisis, fleeing as flames engulfed a house at Lake Conjola on the NSW South Coast.
Another photo of two German tourists wearing surgical masks against a backdrop of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge published in the Financial Times last month under the headline "Wildfire smoke endangers lives and Sydney outdoor lifestyle" is likewise the sort of coverage money would not want to buy.
Apocalyptic images of tourists sheltering in water as flames threatened the Victorian seaside town of Mallacoota or stranded on beaches on the NSW South Coast have also featured across television screens, newspapers and news websites around the world.
They provided a stark contrast to Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks, which went ahead despite calls for the event to be cancelled.
Images of terrified tourists, fire-devastated communities and distressed wildlife are also a far cry from the idyllic beaches and landscapes in Tourism Australia’s new $15 million tourism campaign targeting the British market.
Risks looking 'tone deaf'
Debate has raged over whether the Matesong television commercial is an appropriate depiction of modern Australia. The timing of the campaign amid the bushfire crisis – which has burned more than 4 million hectares and destroyed 1200 homes in NSW – has also been questioned.
"People aren’t stupid, they know we have had a disaster," said Jenny Aitchison, NSW Labor’s tourism spokeswoman. "Putting out the same campaign the government was working on before the disaster, runs the risk of looking tone deaf."
And David Beirman, a senior lecturer in tourism at the University of Technology Sydney, said Tourism Australia should "move heaven and earth" to postpone the campaign.
"[They] will look pretty stupid trying to run a come hither campaign about happy-go-lucky Australia when the news headlines show firefighters grimly defending properties," he said.
Alex Derwin, the executive creative director of BMF, said continuing with the Matesong campaign during the bushfire crisis would appear tone deaf to many people.
“It positions Australia as the antidote to the uptight, stressed out and overworked, which is a hard argument to put when the images you’re seeing from Australia are of kids hiding in the ocean under wet towels as fire fronts rip through their towns,” he said.
Those calls were partly heeded in the past 24 hours, with Tourism Australia in the United Kingdom confirming it had hit pause on the campaign’s digital rollout, as The Sun-Herald reported.
Tourism Australia representative Sally Cope said the decision was taken "out of respect" and the agency would assess the situation "daily".
But it’s not just the juxtaposition of the tourism campaign reshaping Australia in foreign minds.
Mr Derwin said the extensive coverage of the bushfires had harmed the country’s image as overseas travellers cancel flights and reconsider their visits.
"There’s the damage to our ecology, which affects people's perceptions of the natural beauty of our landscape, and very real damage to the local communities and businesses that service the tourism industry," he said.
Mr Derwin said Australia’s reputation as a safe destination was also at risk: "It's understandable considering the coverage, but there's an assumption that everyone in Australia is in imminent and equal danger, and that a trip here is just not safe right now."
The vitriolic debate over climate change was also at odds with Australia's claim to be laid back and friendly, Mr Derwin said. "Our reputation as a tourist destination would be greatly enhanced by taking leadership on climate change, and showing the world that we’re serious about protecting our natural habitats."
Dr Beirman said the catastrophic bushfire crisis had been headline news around the world for weeks and "is not a good look".
"There is no doubt in my mind that this national bushfire emergency will have a significant impact on both international visitation to Australia and domestic tourism within Australia,’’ he said.
Federal Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said the safety of residents and visitors in fire-ravaged areas was the government’s priority, but it was “acutely aware” of the impacts on tourism.
“Many of Australia’s best known tourism regions have previously faced natural disasters such as bushfires and cyclones yet bounced back in a strong demonstration of their resilience as world-class tourism destinations,” he said.
Senator Birmingham said there was “always a risk” that widespread media coverage of the bushfires would also impact other regions of Australia.
“We are monitoring the global media coverage and its impact on future bookings closely and assessing how to address the impact of this as the situation unfolds,” he said.
Felicity Picken, a lecturer at Western Sydney University's School of Social Sciences and Psychology, said the apocalyptic images of bushfires were likely to undermine Australia’s efforts to brand itself as a desirable destination.
She also said the rising risk of bushfires in summer might require a rethink of when and where tourists should visit Australia.
“Poor air quality tends to undermine positive views about the urban quality of a destination whereas bush or wildfires tend to reflect poorly on the natural attractions,” she said.
But Dr Picken said the images with the greatest impact were those that “joined the dots” between the fires and tourists such as holidaymakers sheltering on a beach as flames razed homes.
It is difficult to assess the cost of the bushfire crisis and smoke haze on the tourism industry, but operators across NSW are reporting declines in business.
Ms Aitchinson said the cost to the tourism industry will “probably go to the hundreds of millions of dollars” given many popular tourist sites across NSW have been affected by bushfires.
“Whatever it is, it will be devastating for those who are impacted,” she said.
More than 4000 insurance claims totalling $297m have been lodged since November, The Guardian reported.
BridgeClimb chief executive Chris Zumwalt told ABC News there had been a 15-20 per cent decline in guests wanting to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Blue Mountains mayor Mark Greenhill said: “We’re talking about massive losses in customer numbers … and it will take a long time for business to recover.”
Dean Long, the chief executive of the Accommodation Association of Australia, said the bushfires had led to a drop in hotel bookings of 2.9 per cent in Sydney and up to 10 per cent in regional NSW.
“There’s no doubt the brand of Sydney and NSW has been damaged as a result of this fire,” he said.
The number of visitors at Scenic World in the Blue Mountains in December was down by 50,000 compared with the previous year and 50 per cent lower than forecast.
The tourist attraction’s chief experience officer Amanda Byrne said many tourists had shied away from the area because of bushfires and the “heavy media coverage”.
“In December we’ve had bookings cancelled out of general fear for the bushfire situation from both tour operators and independent travellers,” she said. “We have also heard from our inbound tour operators that they are receiving cancellations for as far out as April – well after the bushfire season.”
Ms Byrne said reporting of conditions in the Blue Mountains during the bushfire crisis had been misleading and sensationalist.
“It’s important for international tourists in particular to understand that the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage-listed area is vast – more than 1 million hectares – and there are many popular tourist areas that are unaffected by the bushfires,” she said.
Ms Byrne said the impact of the bushfires may be felt long after they are doused.
“After the devastating 2013 bushfire in Winmalee, which went for two days, it took three months to see a return to normal visitation in the Blue Mountains region with an estimated loss of $47 million to the local tourism economy,” she said.
Yet the bushfire crisis is far from over for many communities.
Major risk for tourism
Highways were choked with traffic last week as holidaymakers were warned to evacuate the NSW South Coast ahead of dangerous conditions on Saturday that the Rural Fire Service expected to be "the same or worse than New Year's Eve".
Concerns about deteriorating weather conditions also prompted NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian to declare a state of emergency for the state as the fire crisis spread to the Snowy Mountains.
It is a far cry from the advice offered to Sun-Herald readers in December by NSW Tourism Minister Stuart Ayres as Sydney choked on smoke from bushfires in the Blue Mountains and four months after the bushfire crisis began in northern NSW.
"Events are still on, motels are still open, restaurants are still serving food and pubs are still pouring beer," he said. "There is absolutely no reason for anyone to change their plans to visit regional NSW."
Mr Ayres said the state government would work with communities and tourism operators on marketing campaigns to support the tourism industry “at the appropriate time”.
“Once the immediate threat of fires has passed we will focus on supporting communities while they recover and no doubt tourism will play an important social and economic role in that recovery,” he said.
Ms Aitchison said the state and federal governments worked with tourism operators to deal with terror, cyclone and pandemic threats, yet bushfires threats were now a major risk for tourism in NSW.
“On top of the drought, NSW has communities which have now lost pretty much their entire Christmas and summer holiday trade,” she said. “Without swift and effective intervention, we will have many small regional tourism operators going under.”