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Borders Are Open. Now What?

It’s been just under two months since the country watched in awe as the first international flight in almost two years touched down in the Gold Coast, marking the reopening of Australia to the world. Whilst this has triggered excitement in the tourism industry and given locals the chance to start marketing and scaling their businesses once again in preparation for the return of travellers, many are eager to see what this highly anticipated reopening will mean for the region’s economic recovery.

It’s no secret that the northern tourism industry has taken a hit over the last two years. According to the Queensland Tourism Industry Reference Panel, there were 11.3 million less visitors who travelled to and within Queensland during 2020, representing a loss of $12.3 billion in Queensland’s overnight visitor expenditure.

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“Even though only 10-20% of our pre-COVID market was made up of international tourists, we have many businesses across the region who, over decades, have built their business and experience on international markets – the likes of wildlife parks, backpacker accommodation, Magnetic Island and reef operators,” says CEO of Townsville Enterprise, Claudia Brumme-Smith, who also notes the critical role the reopening will play in bridging the gap in the regional workforce.

“The temporary international workers are an important part of the local labour force in North Queensland, particularly in the tourism, hospitality, and agricultural sectors. The border opening is a step in the right direction to starting to address some of these challenges.”

The return of international travellers can’t come soon enough for the Burdekin Shire, whose lack of backpackers and seasonal workers has dramatically impacted the region’s horticultural industry and economy.

“Pre-COVID, the Burdekin had, on average, over 500 international workers in the Shire,” explains Burdekin Mayor, Lyn McLaughlin. “With an insecure workforce, some farmers were left with no choice but to leave fruit and vegetables in the paddock to rot.

“This shortage of international workers has had a negative flow-on effect through our economy, with both less workers in the region to pick and pack crops and less money being spent at local businesses. The opening of borders will welcome these working holiday-makers back into the Shire to support industries.”

Owner of Travel Associates, Debbie Rains, agrees that the opening of borders is certainly a “welcomed relief” for travel agents and the entire tourism sector alike, particularly since international travel is now quickly gaining back its momentum.

“Whilst the opening of international borders is great news for our business and business recovery, it was an extremely difficult time for our industry,” acknowledges Debbie.

“Now that international borders have re-opened, we have been inundated with enquiries for international travel. There is definitely a pent-up demand for travel and people are now looking to make up for lost time.”

Surprisingly though, travellers aren’t being called towards the air but rather the sea, with cruising now defying the odds and fast becoming one of the more popular modes of travelling for out-bound tourism.

“We have seen a real spike in travellers wanting to get back to cruising,” adds Debbie. 

“With cruise lines introducing new safety innovations and successfully operating all over the world, river cruising is popular at the moment and common locations for expeditions currently include Antarctica alongside New Zealand and the Kimberly.”

This increased interest in cruising is further being propelled forward on home soil, with SeaLink North Queensland recently investing $14 million into new vessels, which will also see the return of ‘Ship to Shore’ transfer charters for visiting cruise ships in Cairns, Townsville and Airlie Beach. With borders no longer a barrier, General Manager of SeaLink North Queensland, Chris Briggs, says they are “quietly optimistic” the region will eventually return to pre-COVID levels of international visitors.

“We are expecting after the northern hemisphere summer and in the latter half of this year, that we will see improved international visitor numbers which is expected to further strengthen into 2023,” exudes Chris.

“We see a number of opportunities emerging from the reopening of international borders as travel desire to Australia remains high for many of our important markets in Europe, the UK and America.

“We expect that this will start small given we are a long-haul destination but will improve once there is more confidence for travelling long distances.”

Pre-pandemic, Magnetic Island was swarming with international tourists, making up between 20-25% of visitation throughout the year. According to the Magnetic Island Economic Analysis conducted by Townsville Enterprise in 2019, there were 89,508 overseas visitors to the Island recorded in that year alone. Despite experiencing an immediate 95% reduction in business overnight at the start of the pandemic, Chris says the strong support from North Queensland is what has kept Magnetic Island tourism afloat, with short-stay options being increasingly in-high demand.

But, in the same way that Australians enthusiastically embraced domestic adventure during COVID, the same has been seen in many overseas markets, and whilst everyone in the local tourism sector are optimistic for a full recovery, they’re also cautioning that it won’t be something that happens immediately.

“While we have been waiting for this moment for over two years, we need to acknowledge that international tourism will take some time to rebuild,” continues Claudia.

“There are external constraints like the levels of confidence in the inbound traveller markets, and the lead time between planning a holiday and getting on the plane. This means we’re not likely to see an immediate return of international visitors to pre-COVID levels.” 

Mayor McLaughlin echoes this and says despite a transition period being “inevitable,” it is difficult to predict what this will look like and how long it will last.

“The Australian Government has incentives in place to encourage working holiday-makers, but it is uncertain if workers would holiday first, rather than starting work,” acknowledges Cr McLaughlin.

“This period will also be extremely competitive with other regions in Australia and other reopened countries also wanting to attract this market.”

Despite the brewing competition, Townsville Enterprise has already found new opportunities to future-proof our region and our destination brand to capture “this new age of traveller.” New and iconic establishments such as the Museum of Underwater of Art, the refurbishment of Reef HQ and the new $80 million hotel development next to The Ville Resort Casino also come under this overarching plan, playing a crucial part in raising the profile of the region in a competitive marketing landscape.

“We are in a fortunate position that as a destination we do have new stories to tell, we are one of few locations to launch globally significant tourism experiences during the pandemic and we have continued to see positive global media attention as a result,” adds Claudia.

“We are currently undertaking a destination brand review, a tourism master plan for Magnetic Island and are working closely with the Townsville Airport to continue to build our aviation access.

“This suite of work will put our region in good stead as the world enters its next phase of travel.”

Photography credit: Townsville Enterprise.

Georgie Desailly

Georgie Desailly

Georgie is BDmag’s resident writer who is passionate about entrepreneurship, sustainability and regional affairs. She is preparing to study with The School of The New York Times later this year before commencing her journalism qualifications.