Outback tourism feeling border pain

September state border opening suggestion shocks outback tourism

Coronavirus
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Outback tourism operators are fearful of what the long-term impacts of keeping state borders closed until September will be on their businesses.

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Without a paddle: Longreach tourism operator Alan Smith, pictured among the empty seats on his MV Longreach Explorer on the Thomson River, contemplates what a September border reopening would mean to his business. Picture: Jane Monacella.

Without a paddle: Longreach tourism operator Alan Smith, pictured among the empty seats on his MV Longreach Explorer on the Thomson River, contemplates what a September border reopening would mean to his business. Picture: Jane Monacella.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is risking the health of the outback Queensland tourism industry with her suggestion that state borders may not reopen until September, industry operators and community leaders warn.

Her statement on Monday that the decision would be reviewed monthly, but borders might remain closed for another three to four months, sent shivers up the spine of attractions staring down the barrel of 18 months with almost no income.

The repercussions would strike at the heart of communities that have absorbed the ongoing shock of drought for up to eight years, supported in part by the tourist dollar.

A CWQ Data Collection and Analysis report to the Remote Area Planning and Development Board into the value of the tourism industry found the sector injects $527.4M into central west Queensland each year.

The average domestic overnight visitor spent $740 in Boulia and injected $68.8 million in the Winton economy, while 306,200 domestic travellers visit Longreach per year.

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Ms Palaszczuk's comments attracted harsh criticism from opposition leader Deb Frecklington, who said Queensland's tourism sector has been stunned by Labor's border shambles.

"The Chief Medical Officer says July and the Premier says September.

"The Tourism Minister was reportedly shocked to learn of the Premier's September timetable - and she wasn't the only one.

"There is a slim booking window open right now and the Premier is slamming it shut. Tourists won't plan a holiday in Queensland if they don't even know the border will be open."

Alan and Sue Smith of Aussie Outback Tours have been catering to the interest in outback Queensland for over 30 years from their base in Longreach and say a September border reopening is not the news they need to hear.

Sue and Alan Smith of Aussie Outback Tours at Longreach, who say they have plenty of experience from 30-plus years of tourist transportation, of containing infectious disease outbreaks on buses.

Sue and Alan Smith of Aussie Outback Tours at Longreach, who say they have plenty of experience from 30-plus years of tourist transportation, of containing infectious disease outbreaks on buses.

"We were working to the Morrison government's three-stage plan and a July 10 resumption of interstate travel," Mr Smith said.

"It was such good news two weeks ago - our phones started ringing again and we had some clarity. Monday's announcement blew up that clarity."

The 4WD touring business managed only one tour this year before the non-essential travel ban came into force on March 22.

Since then it has stood down its 50-strong seasonal contract team, while some of the core team of 11 are working as little as five hours a week.

Turnover is expected to be down $6 million, and much of the money they did take in is now credited to travel sometime in the future, which means it can't be spent.

"That $6m is a loss to us but it's also money that our community isn't going to get," Mr Smith said.

He faces the additional concern that while the self-drive market may restart again with boundary relaxations, his tourism transport operation may still be subject to social distancing rules.

"We've got big machines worth a lot of money - if they say we can only take seven passengers at a time, we can't turn a key," he said.

He and other Longreach tourism and transport operators held an emergency meeting with the local council last week to prepare a working plan to present to Queensland Health to enable interstate tourism to start again.

While the Premier has touted the possibilities to tourism from Queenslanders being able to move more freely within the state by the July school holidays, it's the experience of outback attractions that a large percentage of their custom comes from organised group travel.

"We've got to find more common ground without sacrificing health outcomes," Mr Smith said.

"Enough is known now with tracking and hygiene-wise to get a better balance between health outcomes and economic outcomes."

Precautions would include use of hand sanitiser, temperature checks, and thorough vehicle cleaning.

"If we can hold a gastro in a confined space in a remote area, which we have done for years, we can do this," Mr Smith said.

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Further south at St George, motel owners Keith and Julie Bauer said the longer the closure went on for, the tougher it was getting for themselves and their community.

"We rely a lot on southern traffic at this time of year, people from Victoria use us a stop on their way to holiday houses further north," Mr Bauer said.

Their business was down to a 20pc occupancy rate, compared to the usual 80pc at this time of year.

For them, the ultimate irony was in being able to travel hundreds of kilometres north and west, but the major southern centre of Goondiwindi, two hours away, was out of bounds.

"I think September is a bit of overkill," Mr Bauer said.

One western Queensland community leader less enthusiastic about a July border reopening is Barcaldine mayor Sean Dillon.

He said there wasn't 100pc acceptance for the idea in his area.

"We've got very fragile communities out here that wouldn't cope well with a COVID case," he said.

"We know that the outback will be a prime destination for interstate visitors.

"I don't know that there's a right or wrong answer."

Mr Smith said the secret to successfully managing the threat of the virus going forward was having councils helping them work up COVID-safe plans.

"I'm used to challenges," he said. "When you throw a winter wet season like 2016 at me, with tour buses stranded all over western Queensland, you learn how to juggle."

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