The last straw

By Bruce Piper

It’s been a tough few weeks in the Australian travel industry, and last week’s Federal Budget forecast of another 12 months of international border closures has driven many to breaking point. Although the Government has been quick to point out that the budget figures are simply assumptions and shouldn’t be taken as indicating a firm date, the prospect of another year of rolling cancellations and suspensions, credits and refunds and little ability to trade has some seriously contemplating their future in the industry.

And already the gloomy prognostications appear to be having an impact, with Spanish specialist tour operator Ibertours Travel last week deciding the time had come to face reality. Founder John Ford bid “adios” to the industry, making a graceful exit while continuing to manage existing customer bookings to ensure clients are looked after. Like many others, the formerly healthy business had been heavily impacted by COVID-19, and the Budget expectations saw him make the tough decision. “Our 30-year journey has been a long and enjoyable one, however the current circumstances, with great uncertainty and unpredictability along with continued border closures well into 2022 have brought us inevitably to the decision we have taken,” he told travelBulletin.

I particularly liked an A.A. Milne quote on the Ibertours website alongside the announcement of the company’s closure, which cited Winnie The Pooh saying “How lucky I am having something that makes saying goodbye so hard” – and indeed we can all look back fondly on how fabulous things really were pre-COVID. But unfortunately I fear John Ford’s courageous decision is just the tip of the iceberg, with prospects of a – perhaps optimistic – mid-2022 reopening leading many to consider their situation.

Yesterday someone said to me that he’d never seen so many adults in tears as in the days following the Budget, as business owners contemplated their bleak prospects. While many have managed to eke out a living over the last 15 months since the onset of the pandemic, there’s little doubt that another year, at least, will push them to the wall both financially and in terms of mental health.

What particularly frustrated the travel and tourism sectors was that the Budget expectation of another year of industry pain came without any acknowledgement of what this would mean for the industry, and indeed a “re-announcement” of previous support packages where the money had already been allocated. In fact some travelBulletin readers contacted us excited about another $1.2 billion in industry support which featured in the budget papers – only to have their hopes dashed as they realised this was the funding previously allocated to the half-priced airfare scheme, support for Qantas to keep its international staff employed and the first two rounds of the COVID-19 Consumer Travel Support Program. Nothing extra whatsoever.

However every cloud has a silver lining – and while the clouds are pretty dark at the moment, I have an inkling that the grim reality of a mid-2022 reopening may be galvanising some of our leaders out of their complacency.

In just the last few days we’ve seen the NSW Government pushing a proposal which would allow self-funded quarantine places for incoming university students to help the education sector restart. The weekend saw support for a more urgent approach to reopening from a number of quarters, including former Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth who told the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons that Australians could not continue to live in an “eliminationist bunker”. And even Finance Minister Simon Birmingham appeared to back-pedal in a post-budget interview, saying mid-2022 was not a formal government position. “We will follow the health advice as to when we reopen…we had to put a date in for budgeting purposes, and our position is that we want to open as soon as possible,” he said.

As one prominent agent told me yesterday, the gloomy Budget reopening forecasts have put the issue front and centre with the public, business groups and governments of all levels. It’s vital that we now seize this momentum and continue to push the message wherever and with whomever we can.

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