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Coronavirus delivers fresh blow to bushfire-hit Kangaroo Island


The coronavirus is keeping Chinese tourists away from Kangaroo Island, delivering another blow to the fragile local tourism industry following last month’s devastating bushfires.

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Accomodation providers on the island are being hit with cancellations from would-be Chinese tourists who blocked from coming to Australia following the federal government’s February 1 coronavirus travel ban.

The island has been a key destination for Chinese tourists, but Chinese travel agents in Australia have said almost all bookings from February to June have been cancelled since the outbreak in Hubei Province.

Seafront Kangaroo Island accommodation general manager Nicola Purvis said the business had lost roughly 15 per cent of its customers – all from Asia – as a result of the virus in the past week.

“The cancellations that we’ve had from the eastern market have been about $3,000 to $5,000 net revenue … (and) we’ve certainly felt it,” she said.

“It’s not just the fires for us, it’s this on top – so it’s really impacted us.”

Purvis said booking cancellations were for rooms from next week through to June.

“We only started seeing the cancellations in the last three to four days. We were thinking, ‘it doesn’t seem like it’s going to affect us too much’. But over those last couple of days we certainly felt the cancellations coming through,” she said.

“We obviously do work with third parties as well … and what they’ve got for bookings we’re not sure. So, we could still see an influx (of cancellations) come through from third parties.”

The latest string of cancellations come as a double blow to Kangaroo Island tourist operators who are trying to lure visitors back to the popular holiday destination following January’s bushfires, which burnt almost half of the island.

Lifetime Private Retreats accommodation owner Nick Hannaford said the ban on Chinese tourists felt as though “the world is kicking us while we’re down”.

“I don’t know the full impact as far as the statistics yet, but I do know we’re a small business and the Chinese have certainly stopped booking,” he said.

“They were quite regular, we’d get bookings every day and now we’re not. It’s stopped, and then we’ve got cancellations on top of that.”

The travel ban follows an $11 million State and Federal government funding package for small businesses and farmers affected by the bushfire.

Hannaford said he hoped the travel ban would further inspire domestic visitors to visit the island.

“I don’t believe in the sympathy vote,” he said.

“All of Australian tourism would be suffering from the coronavirus. But there’s such a dynamic process going on here with the recovery of Kangaroo Island already and all of these amazing opportunities.

“If we really look at the process and the time that that takes, that in itself is an opportunity. (It’s) a great opportunity to look at nature going through this change.

“Suddenly the bushes aren’t there, revealing the animals where they used to hide. Suddenly you can walk through and see this amazing wildlife with new eyes. It’s a new way to see the wildlife and we’ve got to get this message out to the world that the devastation and destruction is in the past.”

Adelaide City Councillor and China Business Network South Australia president Simon Hou said he met with Federal Trade Minister Simon Birmingham on Friday to discuss the impact of coronavirus on the Adelaide community.

“I was contacted by a few Australia-based Chinese travel agents (ahead of the meeting with Birmingham) saying that all of their bookings from February up until June have been cancelled and that’s huge,” Hou said.

“I have raised all these concerns with Minister Simon Birmingham and hopefully the government can take action on it. Otherwise our unemployment rate in South Australia will rise significantly.”

South Australian Tourism Commission chief executive Rodney Harrex said China was the state’s top market for visits and expenditure, with 66,000 Chinese visitations for the year ending September 2019 with a value of $376 million.

Research from the commission found visitors were split with 43 per cent from South Australia, 31 per cent from interstate and 26 per cent from overseas.

In January, the SATC estimated Kangaroo Island’s tourism could reach $147 million by December 2020, up $7 million from June 2019.

It also last month launched the #BookThemOut campaign in a bid to kickstart the state’s tourism following the bushfires on Kangaroo Island and in the Adelaide Hills.

Harrex said there was “no doubt” Kangaroo Island tourism operators were facing significant challenges as a result of the recent fires and the coronavirus, which was impacting the whole state.

“That’s why it’s more important than ever to support Kangaroo Island and the #BookThemOut campaign – this is going to have a long-term effect on a community that is already suffering, and we are doing everything we can to get people to go and visit, and spend some money with the locals,” he said.

Kangaroo Island mayor Michael Pengilly said the coronavirus’ impact to the island’s businesses was “the same as everywhere else.”

“They ain’t coming from China,” he said.

“Everyone stopped for a while.

“Until (the) coronavirus clears (I) can’t see any change.”

Last week, regional airline Rex cancelled its services between Adelaide and Kangaroo Island.

Rex blamed the decision on Qantas, which it said had forced the smaller airline out of service by flooding the market with seats on “money-losing” routes. The airline has also raised a complaint with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

QantasLink responded by announcing it planned to more than double its flights to Kangaroo Island, but the increased flights won’t start until July.

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