May 28, 2021 | By Bronwen Largier

This week, the Managing Director of the Australian Tourism Export Council, Peter Shelley, wrote an open letter to Scott Morrison seeking “urgent clarity on your plan for reopening our international borders and reconnecting Australian businesses to the global economy”.

The desire for certainty so businesses can plan for the future is indeed a valid one, but considering the current global circumstances, is it unrealistic?

What has transpired since the start of 2020 was unimaginable to the point of fantasy in mid-2019. Even the way the pandemic has evolved around the world could not have been predicted – the successive waves across different geographies, the emergence of more infectious strains, issues with vaccines and perhaps, the greatest unknown now – what happens when we’re all vaccinated?

The situation in Singapore is a case in point – with more than a third of the total number of vaccine doses required to fully vaccinate their entire adult population already administered, the city-state has re-entered a form of lockdown-lite after multiple outbreaks began to emerge in April, putting a stop to, amongst other things, a triumphant resumption of international business events. A number of those diagnosed in Singapore’s latest wave of infections have been fully vaccinated for some time.

And in Shelley’s letter, he calls out the “significant concern at the slow rate at which the Government is applying more sophisticated, multi-layered risk management processes that enables Australia to manage the COVID-19 risk offshore”.

“Managing this risk through extensive pre-departure testing, tracking and tracing technology will minimise the chance of COVID-19 entering Australia and in doing so, avoid the significant costs incurred in managing the exposure to the community which we are experiencing through the current on-shore quarantine processes,” he writes.

Can we have it both ways? Can we be open and be COVID free? Attitudes towards acceptable levels of infection in other parts of the world are vastly different to ours. The UK is proceeding with reopening while continuing to record case numbers of around 2,000 plus per day. Accounting for differing population size, this translates to levels of infection per capita that Melbourne experienced at the peak of its second wave last year.

So, if, in fact, we can’t reopen for now, or even in the foreseeable future – which, let’s be frank, is not much past the end of our noses – where does that leave us? The federal government is touting our 80 percent economic recovery, but of course, tourism export businesses and the wider events industry most likely fall into that unlucky last 20 percent.

Support and marketing may be just the thing. Let the 80 percent rebound prop up the remaining 20 percent. Remove the financial pressure, give our industries some breathing space and prioritise innovation, recalibration and risk-taking while the border is closed.

In the same way that governments use widespread infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy when it’s subdued, treat the events and tourism industries as a microcosm and invest in those.

Provide funding to develop projects which we do not have the time and brain space to achieve when borders are open and visitors are flooding in.

Underwrite insurance for the events industry, so it can proceed as though the pandemic doesn’t exist – which for the most part of Australia, most of the time, is a reality.

Encourage creative risk-taking in these two industries – experience experiments, if you will – so that when we reopen, we are offering a stronger product than that with which we closed our border.

And marketing – encourage Australians to experience our incredible country with no holds barred. To see it as if we didn’t live here always. Engage in traditionally internationally focussed experiences. I climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge last year and it was no less spectacular simply because I have crossed that bridge many times before. If anything, it gave me a renewed appreciation for where we’re lucky enough to live – in a country which is a bucket list destination for the rest of the world.

As hard as the pandemic has been in Australia, from a global perspective, we have had it easy. I don’t think we can even begin to imagine what it was like in Europe, the Americas and now in India, during the height of their multiple pandemic crises. The idea of people dying in hospital corridors, of bodies being thrown in rivers, remains a removed horror for us.

That is not to say we have not paid a significant price ourselves. The threat and reality of lockdown is exhausting and economically dear – predictions for the cost of this week’s lockdown in Melbourne run at $1 billion. But again, economic support and the particular kind of certainty that it brings, are at least within our control.

And yes, both the tourism and, I would say, the events industry in particular are suffering from lack of government ears for our issues. But I also have hope that the pandemic is shedding light on both our value and our challenges and that we may come out the other side with a better – and wider – understanding and appreciation of what we bring to the table, even though right now, many of us are hurting a lot to get there.

And finally, our propensity to jump on outbreaks with harsher measures than may be employed elsewhere in the world – I imagine the whole Northern Hemisphere laughing when they hear we’re going into another lockdown for less than a handful of cases – are also what has kept everyday life at a tolerably enjoyable level in most of Australia for much of the pandemic – this year in particular. For much of the time we have been living in a level of normality that the rest of the world has watched with envy.

We are looking for certainty, but in Australia, we have controlled for almost all measures aside from luck, chance and the knowledge of the virus driving the pandemic which do not yet have, and through which we continue to refine our approach as it emerges – like opening the wrong two doors in a hotel within 30 minutes of each other.