By Joyce DiMascio

Here is the second part of our interview in which executive director of the Australian Tourism Industry Council (ATIC) Simon Westaway comments on the four key lessons from 2020 and the road to recovery. Simon is currently one of the leading industry voices campaigning for government support and a roadmap to recovery – including access to the vaccine and the extension of JobKeeper beyond March 2021.

Q: Are there any lessons from 2020 that will equip our industry for resilience and recovery?

A. Australia’s tourism and visitor economy experienced a perfect storm in 2020. Both its domestic and international markets effectively collapsed, as one, with little warning and little insight on initially how severe the impact would be.

The realisation of a closed border to Chinese nationals from February 1, 2020, led to Australia in complete lockdown before the end of March. This gave little time for many to pivot or buffer. Few planning scenarios would have coped with this. There are however four lessons.

Firstly, Australian governments and their departments collectively despite the engagement and despite the significant data before them, don’t have an innate grasp to the size, scale and impact of Australia’s broad tourism and visitor economy. And in particular, its overreach into specific regional areas and over-representation of SMEs! It is hard to visualise on the run. Our industry advocacy has to be even sharper and clearer and more informative moving forward.

Secondly, there needs to be even closer alignment between Tourism Australia (TA) and key industry and, for want of a public policy position, greater B2G engagement, between our internationally-acclaimed national tourism agency and industry. At senior management level and industry relations levels there is mutual respect and sound dealings but the formality of engagement should be better built into TA’s future planning processes. Not all will agree but as a former senior executive of TA, I see huge value in evolving this. This could involve greater partnerships, research and insights sharing and more easily discoverable issues where TA can be an additional voice into government on the state of the industry. The business events sector is lucky to have a direct sectorial link within TA at this time.

Thirdly, our national tourism strategy must remain pre-eminent, be flexible and adaptable to change. ATIC argued loudly that Tourism2030 should have moved to completion, despite the tumult within 2020, due to the relative successes of Tourism2020, and the need to keep industry, governments, our investors and tourism communities aligned to the key strategic drivers and at least with a new baseline. This must be addressed in 2021. Tourism2030 should inform Government on future policy direction and industry priorities, opportunities and risks.

Finally, governments have longed for industry to speak in one collective voice. I argue, that whilst our diverse sector has many voices, to a large degree we speak consistently and are aligned on the majority of the key issues. There are far more important debates to be had but consistency of message on the big issues is now a priority for industry more than ever for our industry to have the ear of government.

Q: And now for the crystal ball – any thoughts on when you think Australia will be back to pre-Covid visitation levels?

A. 2021 after the start we’ve had appears to reflect another very difficult year ahead on the domestic front. It would be difficult to predict otherwise and our fear is the intention to travel (to visit, attend an interstate event, holiday or for work purposes) has been too often and too dramatically challenged.

Any breakthrough on an improved clarity and commitment to more open domestic borders can fast track some turnaround but as TRA figures are showing, our domestic visitor economy with domestic overnight spend and trips remaining the best part of 50 per cent down to the end of September. It is a long recovery back and is not viewed as being positive until into 2022.

The remaining hard international border has decimated what had grown to close to a $50 billion annual export earner in tourism receipts. Optimism around travel bubbles and false starts aside, although New Zealand visitation has returned in tiny numbers since mid-October 2020, expectations are not promising for anything like sustainable international visitor numbers until 2023, and potentially much longer.

ATIC will work closely with industry advocates around future international bilateral travel bubble opportunities, including the value of key cohort groups such as Working Holiday Makers, but this will be slow progress ahead of vaccine take-up and the state of the global pandemic, which ultimately hold the keys to when the world can emerge out of COVID-19.

Q: We have a new Federal Tourism Minister in Dan Tehan – what do you think he’ll bring to the portfolio?

A: The new Federal Tourism Minister will importantly bring a high level of understanding of tourism, its strong value to Australia’s regions and a proactivity which will be welcomed and absolutely required at this time. The appointment of Minister Tehan was a sound and important one for our industry and we have strongly welcomed.

As the portfolio remains within Trade and given Australia’s significant trade relation issues with our largest export/import market being China, attention will be divided. But hopes are high he will listen and bring activity to the role in the time he and his Department can dedicate.