Perhaps it might have been wiser for Scomo to withhold his handout to the airlines, writes Peter Owen. Picture: Bianca De Marchi
Perhaps it might have been wiser for Scomo to withhold his handout to the airlines, writes Peter Owen. Picture: Bianca De Marchi

Tourism package shows bureaucrats ‘out of touch’

My son, who works in the tourism industry, returned recently from a short trip to Alice Springs, bringing with him disturbing stories of vandalism and violence in this iconic central Australian town.

He told of gangs of youths, some as young as 10 or 12, roaming the streets day and night, smashing windows, burning vehicles, and terrorising visitors and residents.

Shops were barricaded, groups of police stood and watched from street corners, seemingly helpless to restore order, and visitors were warned not to leave their accommodation after dark.

Yet this is a place that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his band of questionable advisers want Australians to visit. It is one of 14 destinations that qualify for ScoMo's half-price airfares that he says is going to save Australia's tourism industry.

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It shows just how out of touch are some of our bureaucrats, and how naive are some of the politicians who meekly take their advice.

This week Mr Morrison and others in his Cabinet doggedly tried to sell the benefits of this package, repeatedly echoing messages such as "We've got to keep planes in the air to put tourists on the ground", while industry leaders, men and women who know the reality, agonised over a wasteful, and what will prove to be a largely ineffective, exercise, while desperate tourism operators prepared to fire thousands of employees.

Many in the tourism industry, especially those who rely on overseas tourists, had dared to hope the Government would extend Jobkeeper for a few more months, allowing them to keep their staff and preserve their business until circumstances changed for the better.

Mr Morrison dashed their hopes when he announced his $1.2 billion package that most certainly benefits Qantas and, to a lesser extent, Virgin, but does precious little for anybody else in the industry.

Police crack down on anti-social behaviour in Alice Springs.
Police crack down on anti-social behaviour in Alice Springs.

Our federal government, and most certainly our state governments, deserve great credit for the things they've done over the past year. They have kept us safe, nurtured our economy, and assisted millions of Australians through welfare packages that, despite their incomprehensible cost, have done the job.

But Mr Morrison now risks ruining a lot of that great work by withdrawing a lifeline from an industry that has nowhere else to go, and which is vital to Australia's future prosperity.

Where is the help so clearly needed for the vast majority of tourism operators that don't operate in the destinations identified by Canberra officials for half-price flights? Where, indeed, is any evidence that there exists in this country 800,000 people even contemplating a holiday as they juggle on reduced income to meet mortgage repayments and keep food on their table?

Even if tourists do travel to those 14 destinations, ScoMo seems to have forgotten that current COVID-19 regulations don't allow bars, accommodation providers and tours the capacity to be profitable.

And what of the backpacker industry, so heavily reliant on young foreign travellers, that doesn't even rate a mention by the prime minister and his cronies, but which delivers hundreds of millions of tourism dollars and provides thousands of agricultural workers prepared to do work at which Australians turn up their nose, preferring to collect Jobseeker payments and lounge around playing video games on their parents' flat screen TVs?

Backpacker operators this week are beginning to lay off employees, wondering whether they'll even still be in business by the time overseas visitors return.

Nor is there any guarantee that small operators - many of them family businesses that provide guided tours, adventures and other services that so enhance the Australian holiday experience - will survive.

There is no doubt that the single most significant step our country took to contain this pandemic was to close international borders when it did.

But now, with nations worldwide well into enormous vaccination exercises and with our country slowly following suit, there is hope that sometime, in the not too distant future, we'll be able to enter what will become the new normal - albeit that it's likely to include some form of quarantine for those arriving in Australia.

So, perhaps it might have been wiser for ScoMo to withhold his handout to the airlines, and instead use the $1.2 billion of taxpayer funds to start a program of constructing purpose built, effective, quarantine facilities that would not only help repatriate the thousands of Australians who can't presently get home, but also accommodate those overseas visitors keen to see and experience all the great things that this country offers.

Unless, of course, it's not already too late - for some sectors of the industry, at least.

Peter Owen is a former Sunshine Coast Daily editor and regular contributor to this website.

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