Months on from Western Australia’s border reopening, the number of international visitors to the state is still only a third of pre-pandemic levels — with tourism businesses expecting to have to wait two years for a full recovery.
- Many overseas tourists were burnt by WA’s border reopening backflip
- Perth Airport believes more needs to be done to regain their trust
- Domestic travel has picked up significantly in recent months
When the pandemic first hit and international borders were slammed shut, overseas travelers vanished, leaving tourism operators scrambling to adapt.
There was a glimmer of hope when borders reopened in March, and the number of international visitors to Perth shot up more than 400 percent.
But the recovery has been slow, with international arrivals sitting at 30 to 35 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and many tourism businesses left struggling.
Amy Stutt’s skydiving business was left flailing in uncertainty when international travel stopped and caused more than 75 per cent of her customer base to disappear.
“Right at the beginning of the pandemic, it was very devastating,” Ms Stutt said.
“Around 45 per cent of our customers were from mainland China … so our business was affected a lot earlier than a lot of other tourism businesses,” she said.
Businesses forced to adapt, or die
While government aid in the form of JobKeeper was able to see them through the first winter period of lockdowns and closed borders, the business needed to adapt to survive.
“We needed to have a look at how we could better serve the local market,” Ms Stutt said.
“We’d always tried not to because our other skydiving operators in WA have really got that side of the market world tied up.”
Capturing more of the local customer base and working in tandem with state and regional marketing campaigns has helped Ms Stutt’s business get through the pandemic.
But while she’s been hopeful since the border reopened, she said there were still many other barriers in place resulting in a slow recovery.
“It really depends on which market you’re referring to. For example, the Singapore market is going gangbusters. We’re really excited to welcome visitors back from Singapore,” she said.
“But then other inbound markets are having other issues. Coming in from South Korea, Hong Kong, up until recently, those markets have had quarantine arrangements back in their home countries.”
More work needed to rebuild trust
Recovering the international traveler base is not as simple as just opening the state’s borders.
Many travelers and businesses were burned when the state government postponed Western Australia’s original border opening date.
While $48 million in funding helped to keep businesses like Ms Stutt’s afloat, work still needs to be done to rebuild trust with travellers, according to Perth International Airport CEO Kevin Brown.
“I suspect there’s an element of anxiety with a number of travelers waiting,” Mr Brown said.
“There’s a significant investment in actually marketing and stimulating the demand … strengthening those cargo links, the international education links, the conference links, the tourism links.
“And encouraging people to go and catch up with their families, some of which, including myself, haven’t seen our families for best part of three years.”
Mr Brown shared the hope tourism businesses were holding on to, with an expectation that international travel would continue to trend upwards.
“There’s holidays coming up soon, and I suspect Christmas will be a big push,” Mr Brown said.
“Those forward bookings are starting to pick up and that will give the airlines the comfort to increase the capacity and the frequency to serve that demand.”
Domestic travel market heating up
While international travelers have been slow to return, Mr Brown said domestic travel has picked up significantly over the past two to three months, with figures up to around 70 per cent of pre-COVID traffic.
“That’s close to 800,000 passengers a month… it’s got a bit to go as well, but it’s certainly taken off a lot more quickly,” he said.
One of Australia’s largest regional accommodation providers, G’DAY Group, has welcomed the speedy recovery of the domestic travel industry.
“The pent-up demand for the domestic traveler to go to wonderful places around the WA coast, and up north in the Kimberley, and Rottnest Island, is very strong for the domestic market,” chief executive Grant Wilckens said.
Mr Wilckens said his business would be relying on strong demand for domestic travel to hold while waiting for the bulk of international travelers to return.
“We’ve got a very small number of internationals in our booking calendar,” he said.
“Going into winter, we’ve got a very strong northern season, and that is typically at the moment a domestic Australian customer base.
“We do see, probably, the comeback of Rottnest in the summer period, starting to see those internationals come back.”
But Mr Wilckens said it would be a “slow burn” for international travel to recover so, while hopeful, the business will focus on capturing the market of Australians traveling their own country.
“We’re a long way away. We’re optimistic, but I think it’d be a two or three year burn to get back,” he said.