Alison Branley: So Simon, what have you been hearing about how tourism operators around the country have been fairing the last sort of three to four weeks?
Simon Birmingham: This has been the most devastating year for Australia’s tourism industry. Now, it really is morphing into a tale of two cities, or many different cities and regions across the country where some are seeing a huge uplift in domestic activity as restrictions in different states comes off, but clearly others who are either sadly in Victoria with new lockdowns or who are businesses just so dependent on international visitors, are still struggling and doing it incredibly tough.
Alison Branley: I’ll just get you to run us through, what supports have been made available to those operators who’ve been struggling so far?
Simon Birmingham: The scale of government assistance going out to businesses is unprecedented, tens of billions of dollars payments being made in terms of small business cash grants to various businesses, the JobKeeper wage subsidy going into businesses, different loan options that are available for many businesses through the banks or through an export agency. And so, there’s a range of different supports available at the national level and then often further small business and other payments being provided at a state and territory level too.
Alison Branley: And has there been anything targeted specific to tourism and the events sector?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve been making sure that the responses of the government are firmly tailored so they support the whole of the economy, but give the greatest support to those who need it most. So, the extension to JobKeeper is geared in a way where businesses facing the greatest sustained downturn will be the ones who most easily qualify and get that assistance in terms of ongoing wage subsidies. So, it’s been about making sure that assistance is proportionate, the problems people face, and tailored and targeted to those who need it most.
Alison Branley: And obviously we’re seeing some adjustments to JobKeeper in that now. Will you be giving any targeted support through those adjustments that are specific to the tourism sector which is obviously hurting the most?
Simon Birmingham: I’ve been really pleased by the response from the tourism industry to the extension to JobKeeper. They were right at the forefront of our government’s mind when we extended JobKeeper; the obvious impacts on our tourism industry of having closed international borders was a real driver in our decision to extend JobKeeper, knowing that there are so many businesses directly hurting as a result of those border closures, and therefore we’ve tailored JobKeeper in a way that I’m sure will see many, many tourism businesses, especially those who rely on international visitors, continue to qualify and have that certainty of support all the way through to March next year.
Alison Branley: Obviously a lot of tourism operators are very supportive of lockdowns and want to keep people safe, but they say their businesses often have a lot of fixed costs. So, zoos, for example, people who run aviation craft, whether it’s skydiving, or water craft like jet skis. And these are things they have to maintain for safety, and so things of fixed costs they just can’t do anything about. Have you considered any direct supports to cover some of those ongoing costs that they just have to cover?
Simon Birmingham: Where we’ve got truly extraordinary costs or reasons, the government has stepped in with hundreds of millions of dollars of additional assistance for the aviation sector to keep critical domestic aviation routes open and planes flying, or indeed providing targeted assistance to exhibiting zoos and aquariums, recognising that they do have huge ongoing fixed running costs of the energy to run an aquarium, or the veterinary costs in a zoo. And so, we wanted to make sure that that support was targeted and tailored to their needs. We’re not going to be able to target, tailor something for every individual microbusiness across the country. And that’s why the whole of economy measures. such as small business payments and the JobKeeper wage subsidy are so important, and why it’s such good news for the tourism industry that that’s continuing all the way through until March.
Alison Branley: So, come the next holidays – hopefully we’ll be in a lot better position, a lot more people will be able to travel – 70 per cent of the tourism market is domestic travel. But obviously they don’t stay as many nights and they don’t spend as much money. But when Australians do go overseas, we’re big spenders. Have you considered any specific targeted approaches down the track to get domestic tourists on the road and spending money such as- you know, tax breaks or enforcing annual leave, all that kind of stuff?
Simon Birmingham: Australians spent $65 billion leaving Australia in 2019 on overseas holidays and international trips while visitors to Australia spent around $45 billion. So, there is a huge amount of outbound expenditure from Australians that we can try to capture to support the local tourism industry in Australia. And we’ve been working with Tourism Australia to gear up our Holiday Here This Year campaign and to really try to encourage Australians, not just to take another short break at the beach but to crisscross the nation to enjoy the different experiences that our wonderful tourism industry has to offer. Our ambition is to absolutely try to backfill that loss of international spending as much as we possibly can, to drive tourists down to the regions, and hopefully, at the end of it, we also have many more Australians who are well-informed ambassadors for our tourism product who can help us prove to the rest of the world when those international borders do reopen.
Alison Branley: Beyond marketing, which is obviously a big deal, would you be open to any other incentives like tax breaks or some shifts to annual leave requirements so that you have to take your annual leave or at least some of it?
Simon Birmingham: As a government, we’ve responded to all of the circumstances thrown before us at present and that’s required us to do unprecedented and extraordinary things like wage subsidies for businesses through the JobKeeper program. We’ve now extended that through to March and that provides a real lifeline of support for different businesses. But we’ll continue to now talk and engage with the tourism industry, seeing how the outlook changes as we head towards March next year, and then consider what might be necessary by way of targeted or other measures, depending on just how the international situation is looking and how we’re going with turbocharging domestic tourism and getting people right across Australia to travel and enjoy and experience our wonderful country and know that in doing so, they won’t just be having a fantastic time but they’ll also hopefully be helping to save the business of an Australian small business tourism operator or save the job of a fellow Australian who might rely on the tourism industry.
Alison Branley: And it’s obviously dry season in the north and I’m sure you’ve heard there’s a bit of a concern from the Indigenous community around Alice Springs around the reopening of the airport. How do you as Tourism Minister manage that when there are obviously well-founded concerns for Indigenous communities, but places like Alice Springs rely on tourism?
Simon Birmingham: These are important issues for states and territories to manage. We know that many states have taken a very cautious approach in terms of their own borders. We understand that, but obviously, as those borders remain closed and restrictions are in place, that’s a big impediment to tourism travel across the country. I’d be urging states, territories, communities to be following the health advice, to make sure they have COVID safe plans in place, but wherever it is safe to do so, to make sure that they are open and welcoming to visitors because that’s the best way that we’re going to save the jobs of our fellow Australians.
Alison Branley: And it sounds like Australians are really trying to get out where they can, but what would be your message to people at home who are watching this piece about hitting the road, be it on the weekend or on next holidays?
Simon Birmingham: If you’re in the fortunate position where you are able to take a holiday, you can financially afford to book it, you’re in a safe position to be able to travel, then please, the best thing you can do for our struggling tourism operators is to make a booking, to plan to get out there. And don’t just plan to book a beach house and sit there and relax, plan to book a tour, undertake an experience, enjoy the amazing things that thousands of and millions of international visitors come to Australia each year to experience, and hopefully, more Australians can get out there and enjoy those experiences now too. See it as a tiny silver lining from this really tough and terrible time we’re going through.
Alison Branley: Great. Anything else you really want to get across?
Simon Birmingham: No it’s all good. Thank you.
Alison Branley: No worries. Thank you for that.
Simon Birmingham: My pleasure.