Transcript, E&OE

Topics: US Travel Advisory ban on travel to Australia; Australian tourism market.
14 January 2020

John MacKenzie: I’m cutting to the chase here this morning because we’ve got a very busy Simon Birmingham; he’s the Tourism Minister on the line. I want to talk to him about these developments. Now, I got some incredible messages through, emails and text messages from people in tourism who were absolutely aghast – not just at the map we saw, that ridiculously misleading map last week that showed the whole eastern seaboard of Australia scorched by bushfires, including Cairns in the Far North. That was infuriating to people in the tourism industry. Why? Because already we’ve got an ailing Chinese tourism market. But what’s been happening recently? Well, actually, the US market has been improving steadily. And what was that going to do? Obviously derail the whole effort that’s been put into the marketing of Great Barrier Reef in Europe and the United States. Now what’s happened since? Well, you’ve probably of heard about this business. The Travel Advisory in the United States saying: do not visit Australia.

Well, what has happened today- this is interesting- or, yesterday actually. Let me read briefly for you from The Courier Mail, it says: US Travel Advisory warnings against visiting Australia have been downgraded after Prime Minister Scott Morrison leveraged his personal relationship with Donald Trump. While the warnings remain in place – please listen closely if you’re in tourism – references to fires being the worst in Australia’s recorded history that could continue until April as well as direct appeals to postpone travel have been dropped. Now, it’s not a complete reprieve, but it’s a step in the right direction. This comes as senior ministers were forced to defend Mr Morrison from bushfire backlash, claiming the community’s expectations changed on how much Canberra should be involved in disaster management, as polls revealed a shocking slump in his popularity.

Look, the reality is for people in tourism, this was a terrifying blow a few days ago when this emerged about this warnings against travelling to Australia in the United States.

Simon Birmingham’s on the line to discuss this, what it could have meant for our tourism industry and hopefully the better situation that will prevail now that the Prime Minister’s intervened.

Simon Birmingham, good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Hello John, thanks for having us on.

John MacKenzie: This must have been a shocker when you first heard about this.

Simon Birmingham: It was. We’ve over recent weeks been monitoring the different travel advisories that many countries have been putting out, we’ve been deploying diplomats around the globe to make sure that where they’re doing this, that they’re factual, that they’re targeted and specific to the region, that they provide the same type of advice that Australia would give to Australians travelling overseas, were the circumstances reversed. But we’ve certainly found instances – and the US was one – where the warnings just went too far, overstated the situation, and yes, indeed, as those reports you read out, the Prime Minister personally intervened there. He had a phone call with the US Vice President over the weekend, he got in touch prior to that with the US Secretary of State, and thankfully we’ve seen some revisions to that.

But of course, we’ve really got to work hard now to overcome the misunderstanding that exists, that has created a perception in some parts of the world that Australia is just- as the whole country as fire-ravaged, when of course, as we appreciate and certainly the tourism operators – your listeners there in North Queensland now – that so many of the magnificent parts of this country are firmly open to business and giving visitors to Australia the same world class experience they’ve always had.

John MacKenzie: Now, you talk about the work done by these voices overseas on our behalf. Sadly because of what happens in the media, it’s hard for them to cut through once people pick up on- well, perhaps a tragedy or an emergency in an overseas country, that’s the picture that’s basically set in their minds.

Let me ask you this, because last week- and firstly these maps appeared on the internet. I had people in tourism saying: we are getting cancellations galore. People that were coming here for Christmas holidays, New Year’s holidays cancelled; people coming from overseas for Chinese New Year were cancelling in big numbers. Now, do you have any fix at all specifically on already the damage done by these fundamentally exaggerated claims overseas?

Simon Birmingham: It’s too early and too hard at present to be able to quantify what that is, but yes, I’m well aware of cancellations existing in regions that are completely unaffected by bushfires and a long way away from the weather that North Queensland, Central Australia, the west, all they know are feeling that effect. We also are aware of some downturn in terms of booking activity and forward travel. So the impact is real. Now, we’re working hard to try to get factual information out there. Tourism Australia’s made sure that they’ve got factual information on their website. Their agents in international markets, along with our diplomatic network, are speaking to the travel trade, getting the message out, to try to make sure that the truth is better understood in relation to the rest of the country. And we’re looking at what additional resources we’re going to have to deploy over the coming weeks, months, and probably years to make sure that we get truthful information and positive messaging about the rebuild and the experiences in Australia.

And the PM has been crystal clear that of the initial $2 billion for bushfire recovery that we’ve allocated, some of that will be used firmly to get the tourism messaging out to the world, and to not just support those fire affected communities to rebuild and recover, but also to make sure that our tourism industry gets the support it needs to overcome the challenges that this has created for many, many businesses.

John MacKenzie: Now, I know you’re in a hell of a hurry, I just want to make a point before you go. Up here in Far North Queensland – and this was shown on that ridiculously misleading map last week, internationally, that we were ablaze – can I just tell you, it’s green as far as the eye can see up here. We’ve had timely rain, it is magnificent, the Barrier Reef is in full recovery mode, it is a wonderful destination. We’ve recently lost a big airline, international airline up here. So people in tourism tell me they are struggling, so please Simon Birmingham, when you’re talking to people in the media here and overseas, can you get the message through that Far North Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef is in magnificent condition?

Simon Birmingham: John, making sure that that is part of our recovery message. We’ve been working on this of course over the last couple of years following those cyclones and bleaching incidents, to have that understanding that there’s magnificent coral regrowth occurring.

John MacKenzie: Yes, yes.

Simon Birmingham: The reef is a spectacular place to visit, and that is a big part, I know, of some of the campaigns happening at present. We’re still pushing campaigns in Japan where we’ve got new flights to Australia, in the US – I know Qantas is very active at present now promoting their new flights into Brisbane with strong connections, then up into North Queensland; as part of our campaign in India, where we’re highlighting Australia amongst the T20 cricket coverage to come, we’re going to be making sure that we have strong messages of recovery, not just for those bushfire areas, but certainly highlighting [indistinct] Central Australia, all of those other wonderful tourism attributes that are completely untouched at present, aside from the misleading and misunderstandings that have been created by some of the media coverage.

John MacKenzie: Good to talk to you Simon, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: My pleasure John, thank you.

John MacKenzie: He’s the Federal Minister for Tourism, Simon Birmingham.