Tourism operators face ruin if denied a "massive opportunity" by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to target the millions of southern Australians unable to take a holiday overseas this year due to international travel bans.
Each year, in a nation of 25 million, Australians take 10 million trips internationally. But Premier Palaszczuk has infuriated Far North Queensland operators by declaring that the tourism-dependent state's border may not open for domestic travel from the lucrative NSW and Victoria markets until September or even later due to COVID-19 concerns.
"The biggest risk is in Queensland losing out to other states with people in NSW and Victoria choosing other destinations such as Byron Bay or opting for a 'staycation' close to home," said John O'Sullivan, the chief executive of Experience Co, a major adventure tourism company with interests in Queensland.
"I'm not privy to the advice the Queensland Premier is receiving from her chief medical officer but the frustrating thing is you've got one arm of government saying domestic travel is okay and the other saying it's not."
Owner Steve Edmondson, along with wife Katrina, of the Port Douglas-based Sailaway Reef and Island Tours, a luxury sailing and snorkelling operation, said that he had written twice to Premier Palaszczuk to appeal to her to allow domestic tourism to resume from July so that it could benefit from the relatively short tourism high-season in Far North Queensland.
Due to the number of businesses and jobs at stake, he said that the issue had become a matter in the "national interest" with operators in Cairns threatening to stage rallies to protest what they see as intransigence on the part of the Queensland Premier.
"I can't understand how you can have the NRL and AFL go ahead while at the same time our tourism industry is being killed slowly and painfully," he said. "We're desperate for the rest of Australia to be able to come to Queensland. It's now about the national interest and not just a Queensland matter."
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported this week that borders between Australian states, such as NSW and Victoria, could be opened to and from New Zealand before they are to Queensland as part of the "trans-Tasman bubble" concept.
Natassia Wheeler, the chief executive of Tourism Whitsundays, said that a recent survey of local businesses in the region had already identified losses of $255 million and more than 3000 jobs. Tourism represents one in three jobs in the Whitsundays.
"NSW and Victoria are key interstate markets for the Whitsundays," she said. "While we are a big player in terms of economic contribution, we have a small community population, therefore we are all feeling the effects of this loss of income.
"I believe our neighbours in the southern states will be thrilled to have the Queensland border reopened, as many of them like to take mid-winter breaks to warmer climates."
Mr O'Sullivan, a former managing director of Tourism Australia, said that a "massive opportunity" existed for tourism operators to take advantage of the effectively captive audience of millions of Australians during the crucial high-season from June to August. He said that such an opportunity may not be repeated next year for Queensland tourism operators when international travel gradually resumes.
Geoff York, the group director of the Crystalbrook Collection, a chain of luxury boutique-style Cairns hotels, said that many tourism businesses would not survive until September, the month the Queensland Premier had indicated as the point at which domestic tourism may be allowed to resume.
He said that there had been a "seismic shift in attitude" after the tourism industry had been expecting a July resumption of travel, only to be informed by Premier Palaszczuk that the Queensland border may not reopen to the southern states until September or even later.
Simon Westaway, the executive director of the Australian Tourism Industry Council (ATIC), said the situation in Queensland had become a "lightning rod for tourism industry discontent." The National Cabinet's road map out for a COVID safe economy was "clear and transparent" with a "true national domestic operation" by July and was now a matter of urgency.
"Australian tourism shouldn't become a test tube to now test community transmission theories around COVID-19 when it is clearly being well managed here," Mr Westaway said.
"[Queensland] has both the most to gain and lose by its stance as it's a vital cog in encouraging people to get moving again through and over borders, particularly from southern states."