Tourism operators in Western Australia’s north are facing “18 months of pain” with concerns the coronavirus pandemic could lead to bankruptcies and the crippling of popular tourist towns.
- The COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia just as the northern tourist season would normally be starting
- Kimberley tourism operators say they are looking at up to 18 months without any income
- The State Government says it understands the challenges and support is available
While southern tourism operators were coming off their profitable summer months, the COVID-19 lockdown happened as northern businesses were about to reopen for their annual peak season — the time of year when tourists head north chasing the winter sun.
Natasha Mahar, from tourism marketing body Australia’s North West, said the timing could not have been worse.
“Six months of wet season, a further six months of no dry [peak tourism] season now due to coronavirus and another six months of wet season following that.
“So all up it’s at least 18 months of pain.”
She said some local families were phoning her in tears.
“Our operators are resilient and they’re doing their best, but the worst case scenario is some businesses won’t make it.”
Adding to the concern was the fact that the Kimberley may be the last region to be reopened for tourism due to the at-risk demographics of its more than 200 remote Aboriginal communities.
‘We have everything on the line’
Some small, locally-owned tourism businesses have described being stuck in a debt-laden limbo as they continued to pay for expenses such as vehicle and boat insurance, property rents and living costs while having no income from their business.
Some — still in shock from the sudden shutdowns — were trying to decide whether to cut their losses and sell up, or try to hold on through the indefinite travel bans.
Among them are Myles and Bec Penegar who bought the Broome Hovercraft Eco Adventure Tours business nine years ago.
Over the wet season they invested in a 14-seater boat to expand the business, such was the demand from tourists to visit the ancient dinosaur footprints along Roebuck Bay.
Mr Penegar said the pandemic shutdowns happened just as they were about to launch for the year.
“We were just so upbeat and excited to show people what we do, ” he says.
“We had a lot of forward bookings and we were days away from doing the boat tour for the 2020 season and then suddenly, everything was stopped.
“We know people have had it worse … but everything we have is tied up in this.
The couple have three young children and the stress of the situation is clear.
Bec Penegar wiped away a tear as she described the predicament.
“Look, we know in a sense it’s a first-world problem and we are glad for the restrictions and that people aren’t getting sick from COVID-19 the way they are in other countries and that’s the most important thing.
“But it is stressful as we have everything on the line.
“We love what we do and we just want to come out the other side of this.”
Some regions hurting more than others
The CEO of the Regional Chambers of Commerce of WA, Kitty Prodonovich, said the economies of small, northern towns like Exmouth and Broome were most vulnerable amid the pandemic shutdowns.
“Those towns that are heavily reliant on tourism are the ones we’re most concerned about right now.
“Tourism is a crucial industry to almost all the business in town, so the travel restrictions are a massive blow,” she said.
“We have faith in the directions the state and federal governments are taking but there needs to be some additional support specifically, for those north-west businesses.”
The chambers’ April survey of regional business confidence revealed half of the respondents had not accessed government assistance for the COVID-19 crisis.
“Business owners are just overwhelmed by the situation and that’s a real concern that 50 per cent of businesses had not yet found out what support relief or stimulus they were eligible for,” Ms Prodonovich said.
Government committed to helping
The WA Government said it was aware of the situation and was working behind the scenes to support the struggling businesses.
In a statement to the ABC, Tourism Minister Paul Papalia said he understood the challenges COVID-19 posed to the tourism industry.
“The State Government has established a dedicated Industry Support Team within Tourism WA to assist operators to access state and federal assistance packages,” Mr Papalia said.
He said the Government had also waived license fees and payroll tax while affected business owners could also access one-off electricity grants.