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'In peril': SA tourism industry calls for more help

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The axing of JobKeeper and the latest snap border closure has prompted renewed calls to help the pandemic-hit tourism industry, with state travel agents and tour operators warning they are already cutting back hours and making staff redundant.

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The Tourism Industry Council of SA (TiCSA) and South Australian Hotels Association have joined a growing group of industry bodies urging the Federal Government for “direct and targeted financial relief” for “hard-hit tourism enterprises” that were particularly vulnerable due to ongoing border closures.

“With the Easter long weekend just around the corner, the Greater Brisbane lockdown will hinder industry recovery as Queensland is an important domestic visitor market for South Australia,” TiCSA CEO Shaun de Bruyn told InDaily.

“Financial support for those tourism enterprises at risk of closure will be vital until international borders reopen and vaccine rates are higher.”

South Australian Hotels Association CEO Ian Horne echoed TiCSA’s sentiment, saying a tailored federal wage subsidy was required for the hospitality industry as changing border restrictions continued to dent consumer confidence.

“We saw it when we had a three-day lockdown last November. There was a direct impact and loss in the three days but then there was the flow on for December and into the new year, consumers just abandoned their bookings,” he said.

“They cancelled bookings, they cancelled weddings, they cancelled a whole range of things because of the fear of the unknown – and that’s the great risk when governments shut borders and put in restrictions. It creates fear among consumers, rightly or wrongly.”

Horne said while a “big percentage of the hospitality industry” had returned to viability, regional small bars and pubs as well as the catering and accommodation sector, that depended heavily on business events, required further financial support.

The State Opposition fears that up to 10,000 jobs could be lost across South Australia with the end of JobKeeper on March 28, based on Treasury estimates that between 100,000 and 150,000 jobs are at risk nationally.

It follows the announcement of the Federal Government’s tourism and aviation support program, which largely focused on discounted regional flights and business loans, earlier this month.

Hastwell Travel and Cruise owner Trinity Hastwell said in the past month she has made one of six employees redundant and reduce working hours for the remainder, with no long-term financial certainty once the wage subsidy ended.

She said her business and employees had relied on JobKeeper to stay afloat over the past year, but hard decisions about staffing now had to be made.

“If we want the business to survive we’ve had to make those really tough decisions,” Hastwell said.

“We’re part of a group of 150 independent agencies and I know of several whose doors will close as of the 1st of April because the only thing that was allowing them to trade was the support of the JobKeeper.

“The question is … who is going to process those bookings if those agents aren’t there any more?”

She said in 2019 the agency received about 80 per cent of its revenue from international travel. But it lost most of its business after Australia closed its borders to overseas travellers and had been forced to refund cancelled bookings while fighting for survival.

“We’ve lost 80 per cent of our business and not just of the forward business. We had to give back all of the commission we earned the previous year,” Hastwell said.

“That income has already gone to pay rent and wages for the year before, and now we’re having to give that back.

“Our industry is in peril. I understand why the government has the (international) borders closed but they’re the ones who’ve cut off our industry so there should be some further targeted support.

“Retail travel agents, local tour operators who rely on that international travel coming in, they need some targeted help.”

SA-based tour operator Dallas Coull, owner of See Adelaide and Beyond, said while JobKeeper had enabled the business to continue employing all seven of its staff throughout the pandemic, the tour company faced an uncertain future as end of JobKeeper coincided with SA closing itself off from Greater Brisbane.

He said the company had processed refunds for about 10 per cent of its upcoming bookings over the last few days, but was bracing for more in the coming week.

“We’re refunding people in what would be our busiest week, Easter weekend, that would be our biggest week for the next six months and we’re currently sending refunds back,” he said.

“There’s a massive question mark moving forward. We’ve got outstanding staff, we want to do everything we can to keep our staff through to the other side of whatever this is.

“We don’t want to make money over this period  – we just want to keep our staff together so that when things do kick in that all of our staff are here and we don’t lose them to other industries.

“All we’re saying, is wait until the vaccine is distributed and there’s not these knee-jerk reactions with borders and we’ll be good as gold.”

Coull said a $1.2 billion Federal Government tourism and aviation support package announced earlier this month was welcomed but did not provide the financial consistency the industry required.

Business SA has called in the past week for the State Government to offer more support in its June budget for sectors impacted by COVID-19.

Its recommendation included a “contingency fund … to provide financial support for heavily hit sectors” that were dependant on travel, as well as introducing an autumn/winter hospitality and recreation voucher scheme for Adelaide CBD and an extension of its payroll tax waivers.

“We cannot forget that many businesses are still hurting, and still at risk of foreclosure as a result of the pandemic,” CEO Martin Haese said.

“This State Budget must reflect those still needing a helping hand, until such time as we are living without government-imposed restrictions.”

Treasurer Rob Lucas said the government would consider the overall submission in its budget, including the decision to extend its payroll tax past June.

“We’ve provided payroll tax right through to the end of June, so JobKeeper’s finished now but for the next three months the State Government is providing payroll relief to thousands of businesses in the state,” he said.

The Marshall Government pointed to the Business and Jobs Support Fund, Small Business Grants and the Great State travel vouchers as schemes the State Government had introduced to help the tourism and hospitality sectors but said the Federal Government had greater “capacity to provide targeted relief”.

“The State Government is committing significant sums of tax-payer dollars … providing assistance right across the ball,” Lucas said.

“But the reality is, as we said right across the start of COVID, we’ll try and save as many jobs and business as we can but there’s no way that any government, including ours, can save every job and every business in the state that’s impacted by COVID.”

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