Dream holiday destination Queensland has a new nightmare. The flood waters have receded, the cyclone’s fury is long spent — the welcome mat is out again. However, tourists are staying away in droves.
“We saw all the floods and thought we might be in danger,” said Ben Davis, 21, who is in Australia on a year-long work and holiday visa with his girlfriend, Danielle Hodgson.
The English couple planned a short jaunt to Sydney before heading to the tropical paradise of Australia’s northeast coast. However, one week has turned into six — and counting — as they watched first one, then a second natural disaster unfold in Queensland state and decided Sydney was a safer bet.
The sudden change of plans is a small example of a bigger problem for Queensland as it recovers from weeks of deadly flooding and from a massive cyclone.
The disasters have caused an abrupt image malfunction for the state, which includes some of the main drawcards in Australia’s US$40 billion a year tourism industry. Almost 6 million tourists visited Australia last year, and more than half of them went to Queensland, lured by the Great Barrier Reef, thousands of kilometers of pristine beaches and year-round warm weather.
“The vast majority of the tourism businesses in the state have been completely untouched by the disasters. The problem is the phone has stopped ringing,” said Anthony Hayes, the head of the government-funded promotional body Tourism Queensland.
Itinerary changes and trip cancelations have cut Queensland tourism revenue by an estimated US$500 million since Christmas, said Daniel Gschwind, CEO of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council.
Losses are still being assessed, but Gschwind expects that number to rise.
Tourism contributes US$9.2 billion to the Queensland economy annually and provides more than 220,000 jobs.
Tourism officials say it is too early to say whether images of the disasters have affected the number of international visitors traveling to Australia. Industry workers and tourists themselves say many that are already in the country are avoiding Queensland.
Davis and Hodgson bought bus passes and planned to travel the popular east coast route through Queensland, stopping in Brisbane, Byron Bay and the Whitsunday Islands before looking for casual farm work in the fruit-growing region near Cairns. An extended stay in Sydney, Australia’s most expensive city, almost ruined their entire trip when they had to shell out money for accommodation they hadn’t planned for.
“We actually came really close to having no money, so we would have had to go home,” Davis said. “I’ve only found a job just in time. Otherwise I was going to ring my dad and say ‘Can you sort us a flight out home?’”
Davis, who is staying at a hostel in Sydney, said he knew others in a similar position, staying in Sydney or Melbourne, while waiting for damaged areas to clear up and get back to normal.
While many tourism businesses were able to reopen quickly after the floods and storm, damage to roads was deterring travelers, with fewer caravans and busloads of backpackers making their way along the coast, Gschwind said.
Hayes said initial reports reflected up to an 80 percent drop in booking rates in some places in Queensland compared with last year, and that small businesses with limited cash flow were suffering most and had started cutting back on staff.