By Joyce DiMascio

We kick off the year with an interview with Simon Westaway, executive director, Australian Tourism Industry Council (ATIC). Simon has not stopped campaigning over the holiday break for more support from government for businesses in the visitor economy.

He spoke to Joyce DiMascio about the need for measures by the federal and state governments to help provide some certainty for industry.

Off the back of the latest Tourism Research Australia data for October 2020 which showed overnight visitor spend down in October by 47 per cent and overnight trips down by 41 per cent, the situation over summer will have only worsened given the latest round of lockdowns and border closures.

Simon is an outstanding advocate for the industry – his experience at Tourism Australia and within the Qantas Group including Jetstar have made him a compelling representative for all parts of the visitor economy.

Today we publish Part 1 of our two-part interview.

Q: Simon – We ended the year filled with optimism for 2021, but we still face challenges for the visitor economy as Covid clusters pop up around the country and governments impose lockdowns and border crossing restrictions. What are you looking for from Government?

A: From Australian Governments collectively Australian small business tourism enterprises which ATIC strongly represents are looking for four clear areas of activity.

Firstly, to continue to effectively manage COVID-19 across Australia including safely facilitating the necessary return of many Australians from overseas. This also maintains a skeleton international flight network to still service Australia until the incidents of the virus subsides and vaccines take effective hold. We believe Australian tourism has been a supportive partner in particular in our committed advocacy of a hard closed international border whilst COVID-19 remains rampant abroad.

Secondly, and equally as pressing, is for genuine national consensus and adherence of a consistent and clear approach by states and territories towards their borders in response to identified COVID-19 community hotspots. This needs to be pursued by having the Commonwealth coordinate a gathering of Federal and State Governments in the near future. This could be part of or separate to the National Cabinet process.

We argue for an agreed set of principles and a commitment and consensus between governments towards future responses that looks to the national interest, not simply a state or territory alone interest.

Thirdly, that governments are urged to utilise greater resources including approved rapid ‘antigen’ testing methods testing for and managing COVID-19 to complement the public health response towards a hotspot situation to maintain greater integrity with domestic borders and better support livelihoods.

And lastly, that a future support package for industry be pursued and adopted that includes the maintenance of JobKeeper beyond the end of March along with a coordinated range of additional measures by both Federal and State Governments to sustain the semblance of Australia’s visitor economy until vaccination rates are substantive and the international border can re-open.

Q: What kind of response are you getting?

A: Industry’s voice was consistently and respectively heard by governments during 2020 but we have been given much shorter shrift when it comes to the public health response being the predominant and prioritised response to the pandemic.

The domestic border brouhaha which again emerged at the end of 2020 and now into the initial weeks of 2021 is a further case in point that the priorities of the tourism and visitor economy are not high when balanced against the overarching desire for identifying and addressing a virus hotspot with rapid and hard draconian responses.

To a level this is understood, but with the pandemic now being in Australia for a year a more strategic level of engagement is now required, given that the wider visitor economy is a genuine economic pillar of the Australian economy. Levels of consumer substitution between international and domestic travel and industry restructure have commenced with the hard international border close having been in place for the best part of 12 months along with regular interstate travel restrictions.

Whilst governments are aware that the visitor economy has dramatically shrunk holistically due to the international border closure and months of hard domestic border arrangements, the level of disruption along with pockets of growth in day trip and intrastate destination travel linked to population hubs, has confused the picture of what the future response and the shape of industry is to be.

Q: What’s your message to the owners and operators in the business events sector? Any comments on international versus domestic?

A: The latest national tourism data around our free-falling visitor economy due to COVID-19 makes clear the need for future action to help underpin one of our major economic pillars and job creators.

The business events sector is a very important part of our dynamic visitor economy and is strongly supported by ATIC. Our many small business members understand the harsh reality that the sector is now in the midst of experiencing and things will no longer return to the past.

Insights being gathered over more recent times as Australia gets on top of the community transmission levels of the virus is that there is a future for business and tailored events, but its delivery is likely to be different, a more bespoke offering in many cases (in particular in terms of attendee numbers and use of digital platforms) and clearly a far greater reliance and necessity to ensure a sustainable domestic (and particularly intrastate) business events offering.

The value of business and incentive events and conferences needs to continue to be strongly advocated. The awareness of the sector’s plight was acknowledged with a specific Federal package late last year and we’re encouraging ongoing advocacy efforts.

The international business events market appears under significant strain for Australia as a near term offering so anticipation for the success of vaccine introduction and coverage against the virus as well as corporate and government international travel policies will appear to play a large role in when this market may turn.

Corporate Australia and Government departments which have seen their work teams based from home for the best part of 2020 need to have these teams physically reconnected or at worst ensure people remain aligned around the organisational strategy and priorities moving forward. This presents incentives for small offsite gatherings and possibly more regular than before and possibly in regional environments.

Like all sectors across the visitor economy we need to be clear and succinct in voice and with similar messages into Government.