Transcript, E&OE

Topics: The impact of bushfires on tourism and business.
16 January 2020

Ali Moore: What are you planning a holiday and any chance that you will head to those areas that have been bushfire affected once they are back in a position to host you because tourism has been absolutely decimated? The tourists are staying away. Even businesses that are hundreds of kilometres from the fires have been impacted. Cancellation rates of more than 60 per cent in towns. They’ve been estimated to cause economic damage of up to $1 billion this morning. If you are one of those businesses, what help do you need and what would like to see from the Federal Government?

Senator Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and he joins us now. Senator Birmingham, good morning.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Ali, and thanks for the opportunity.

Ali Moore: Well, how severe do you think the damage is? What do you think the bill’s going to be?

Simon Birmingham: Well in terms of the national impact it is too early to be able to quantify that seeing(*) we do know that there’s been a significant hit in terms of domestic tourism travel. Many holiday-makers who have had to cancel their plans or abandon their plans part way through in these tragic circumstances. We also know that there have been international cancellations and a downturn in bookings. So the impact is real and there are many tourism businesses in Australia who are hurting at present.

Ali Moore: Do you think $1 billion is on the money?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I would expect that it may be, but as I say, it is too early to really try to quantify and you know we have to see just how prolonged the downturn in bookings are and how deep the cancellations are and so I understand people seeking to make estimates at present. Frankly, my focus is not on estimating the extent of damage. It is on what we can do to mitigate that and to turn it around and so we are talking at present to a range of different tourism industry leaders. I’ve met with the Victorians- Victorian Tourism Industry Council. We’re having a roundtable of national tourism industry leaders today. Talking to a number of businesses in bushfire affected areas and trying to understand from them what it is we can do to get visitors back in to those bushfire-affected regions and of course for those outside of bushfire affected regions, stem that tide of reduction in bookings we’re seeing internationally.

Ali Moore: I am very tempted to say, I don’t know whether you’ve run out of round tables in Canberra because there are so many roundtables. There’s an environmental roundtable, there’s been a science roundtable, there’s been a business roundtable. Now there’s a tourism roundtable. There’s a lot of discussions going on, but how quickly can you act because these businesses need help now?

Simon Birmingham: Yeah, and we are working through the actions in a way concurrent with those discussions. You’ve seen, of course, the Prime Minister making a whole series of announcements in terms of support, whether it’s for mental health support for our farmers and our agricultural sector, so these decisions are being made on a daily basis and we’re essentially triaging them through the Cabinet process, to make commitments out of that $2 billion that was initially budgeted. And the PM’s been very clear there will be support for the tourism sector there. Of course, many tourism operators are small businesses so they are able to access some of the grants and funding and assistance that is available already.

Ali Moore: And how fast can they do that, because I’m told that if these businesses don’t get help in the next and we’re talking two, three weeks’ maximum, they’ll go under?

Simon Birmingham: So businesses should be in contact with their local relief and recovery centres, register there and funds absolutely can start flowing very quickly through that process in terms of helping them with their clean-up. We are having a look in the small business space at what other measures might be able to support those individual businesses. And of course in the tourism space, I’m looking at what we can do as I say particularly to get the visitors flowing again. And a message very much for listeners out there and Australians have shown amazing empathy and support for bushfire affected communities. But if you really want to help these communities and these businesses, then please make a booking to travel during upcoming weekends, long weekends, next lots of school holidays and the like because getting people back into those communities, spending in accommodation providers, in cafes, in bakeries, in hotels, in restaurants, with attractions is so essential to supporting their local economies.

Ali Moore: So you’re considering, are you, a post-fire advertising campaign? Because I guess the point is, it doesn’t matter what your ad campaign says. You can’t escape the facts, and particularly from an international point of view, those images of massive forests on fire, of smoke haze, and people in masks, I mean, they’re death to tourism, aren’t they?

Simon Birmingham: There are definite reputational impacts internationally, and we have to acknowledge that, and that means we have to change tact in terms of some of our marketing. We’re not completely exiting international tourism markets at present, we are still in targeted and in tactical ways driving a message, whether it’s in India in relation to the upcoming T20 tournaments, or whether it’s particular social media messaging we’ve got in the Japanese market. So a range …

Ali Moore: Yeah, but what was does look like? Like, don’t worry about the fires? Don’t worry about the smoke haze? I mean, what sort of message do you send? And I note that you’ve pulled the Dannii Minogue ad.

Simon Birmingham: Well, we haven’t completely pulled the Kylie Minogue Matesong campaign in …

Ali Moore: Sorry, Kylie Minogue. Wrong sister.

Simon Birmingham: That’s okay. I get confused with our US campaigns using the Hemsworths, as to which brother it is.

Ali Moore: They’re all good looking, it doesn’t matter.

Simon Birmingham: But in the UK, we haven’t completely pulled that. But again, we have changed tact in terms of just how wide-reaching it is and being more targeted and tactical. The key part is of course to make sure that internationally, people understand that most of Australia is not bushfire affected. Most of Australia you can come and have exactly the same visitor experience now, regardless of the bushfires …

Ali Moore: So will that be the ad …

Simon Birmingham: It’s incredibly important to us, North Queensland tourism operators …

Ali Moore: No, sure, and we spoke to one of them yesterday. Jacinda Ardern had visited one, and that certainly helped them with some high-profile visitors. So is that the focus of the campaign that you try and put the attention on areas that have not been affected by bushfires?

Simon Birmingham: In part, in terms of this immediate stage, getting accurate information out globally, because there’ve been some terribly misleading maps and images that suggest the whole nation is on fire. And so that compounds the hurt and spreads it further beyond those bushfire-affected areas. So accurate information, and Tourism Australia has been doing that online as well as in direct conversations with major travel bookers, wholesalers and the like in international markets and their contacts. Of course, we’ve made sure that our diplomatic network and through government right up to the Prime Minister have been engaged in talking to other governments to make sure they have an accurate understanding and that seems …

Ali Moore: Like getting the travel warning in the US changed? Because they were warned not to come.

Simon Birmingham: That’s right. So the PM had direct discussions with the US Vice President over the weekend to make sure that they have a better, more accurate understanding of the circumstance here. So- and they are all important steps, and of course, it’s about continuous consideration of the steps we can take. Right now wouldn’t be the time, of course, to simply go out there all guns blazing with a new international campaign because we are still working, and firefighters are working incredibly hard.

Ali Moore: Sure. And that’s actually, Minister, one of the challenges, isn’t it? Because people are texting me now and saying they want to travel, but they don’t know where to go, because they’re not sure who’s up and running and who’s not. And no one wants to add extra strain and be in an area that’s not prepared to host people. So maybe the best thing that the Federal Government can do is to establish some sort of registry. Yep, this area’s open for business, this one not quite yet, this one okay.

Simon Birmingham: So if you visit the Tourism Australia website, you can absolutely find information already about which regions are fully back up and running, where there are still areas of concern, and indeed, state tourism bodies and region tourism bodies have also made sure all of their websites are updated. So people who want to help and can get out there quickly, that is fantastic. I urge people to do so. If you’re in Victoria, get on the Tourism Vic website, they’ll have up to date information directing you in terms of where it’s safe to go, who’s still open for business, and of course thinking ahead, making bookings now can really help their operators too.

Ali Moore: Sure. And maybe even paying now and travelling later. Senator, thank you very much.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much, Ali. Much appreciated.

Ali Moore: Senator Simon Birmingham there, the Minister for Tourism. Are you planning to travel to some of these fire-affected areas as soon as you can, maybe make the booking now? Help them get back on their feet.