January 14, 2022 | By Graeme Kemlo | Image: Michael Johnson, CEO of Tourism Accommodation Australia

Australia’s major hotels – particularly in Sydney and Melbourne – face an ongoing staffing crisis that is unlikely to be fixed until the government promise to import thousands of international students is delivered.

A survey conducted among member hotels by Michael Johnson, CEO of Tourism Accommodation Australia (TAA), revealed 88 percent of Sydney hotels were operating under some restriction with a cap on room availability and services. He said he believed Melbourne would be no different.

Johnson said there was a direct flow-on to business tourism, with events that had been pushed out during 2021 into 2022 now facing further postponement.

“Those 2021 conferences that were pushed into January this year are now being further postponed in the hope that we might shortly see Omicron peak,” he said.

COVID has also caused some hotel developers to postpone plans to open new properties and he was aware that some proposed hotels “have been completely taken off the drawing board”.

There was some light amongst the gloom with many regional areas enjoying normal hotel occupancies in the first week of January that are in line with January 2019. But Melbourne and Sydney suffered – they averaged 37 and 30 percent occupancy in the week of January 2-9, which excludes the impact of both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.  While Brisbane and Perth were normal, Hobart and Canberra were higher than normal. The Gold Coast was 15 points down and Adelaide 20 points lower.

“In 2019, Sydney did 75 percent for that first week and Melbourne did 68 per cent – they are not our busiest month by any means, but it really has hit the two big cities,” Johnson said.

Apart from the absence of international students, who fill many part-time positions in the hospitality industry, existing staff numbers had been dramatically reduced by Omicron‘s rapid infection rates and guest cancellations.

Industry service providers such as laundry service companies and temporary staff agencies also have their own staff shortages. Some hotels have seen their diminished staff numbers cut further by Omicron with one Sydney GM telling micenet he had been working in the hotel’s laundry to ensure rooms could be serviced on time.

Johnson said it appeared the outbreak of Omicron had stalled the return of international students to Australia, although two charter flights each carrying about 200 students had arrived in Sydney in December and January.  But the bulk of students may still be one month away as most Australian universities start their academic year from mid-February to March.

In an attempt to alleviate some of the staffing shortages, yesterday Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday removed the cap on the number of hours international students are permitted to work – previously there had been a 40 hour per fortnight limit.