Fires to burn large hole in tourism market

CATASTROPHIC bushfires burning thousands of kilometres away are expected to take a severe toll on what is already shaping up to be a raw-boned year for Far North tourism.

The region has been spared from destructive hellfires that have reduced so much of the country's southeast to ashes and threaten to cost Australia billions of dollars.

However, the economic aftermath is likely to take an immediate bite out of the domestic tourism market - not to mention the effect global "Australia is burning" headlines could have on international visitation.

There have been eight confirmed deaths in NSW since December 30. 1365 homes have been lost, while 3.6 million hectares have been burnt this fire season. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)
There have been eight confirmed deaths in NSW since December 30. 1365 homes have been lost, while 3.6 million hectares have been burnt this fire season. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Tourism Tropical North Queensland CEO Mark Olsen said operators should prepare for a tough 2020 that required creative marketing to sell the message that Far North Queensland was green, temperate and thriving.

"Our prediction for 2020 is that it will be slower than previous years," he said.

"Last year we had the monsoon (contributing to a slump), and in the years before that we had big booms for things like Chinese New Year.

"The whole Chinese travel model has changed for Australia, and because Cairns is one of the largest destinations for Chinese inbound, we're more affected than others."

A slower Chinese market will only increase the importance of domestic tourism - already the biggest market, but potentially more susceptible to post-disaster belt-tightening.

"If the bushfires have an impact, then it will be a question of how much travel there is from Australia domestically," Mr Olsen said.

Melbourne tourist Nathan Janson arrives at the Cairns Airport domestic terminal with his children Ruby Janson, 5, and Harrison Janson, 6, for a holiday in Far North Queensland. PICTURE: BRENDAN RADKE
Melbourne tourist Nathan Janson arrives at the Cairns Airport domestic terminal with his children Ruby Janson, 5, and Harrison Janson, 6, for a holiday in Far North Queensland. PICTURE: BRENDAN RADKE

"We're hopeful of continued growth in the domestic market off the back of the domestic campaign."

Blazing Saddles owner Michael Trout said the fires had already had a major effect on domestic bookings over the Christmas period.

A spike in Japanese visitors - and the US to a lesser degree - has helped keep the wolves at bay.

"We normally get inundated with Australian kids, particularly with horseriding, but that didn't happen this year at all," he said.

The Cairns Airport international terminal. PICTURE: BRENDAN RADKE
The Cairns Airport international terminal. PICTURE: BRENDAN RADKE

"I really can't work out any reason for it other than the bushfires.

"We thought 2019 was tough … I'm not normally a pessimist but I cannot see 2020 being any sort of revival.

"My concern is how we are going to keep enough work for our staff.

"If there was ever a time for our leaders to come together and strategise how we are going to bring in domestic and international tourism, it's now."

Mr Trout said it was a time for honesty.

"Last year and the year before, operators would say they were doing OK because they didn't want others to know they weren't," he said.

"I drive a bus every day and talk to all the other operators, particularly their staff, and they all say numbers are significantly down - and down enough that everyone should be worried."

Cairns Mayor Bob Manning said the effects of the southern bushfires would be felt across the nation. PICTURE: BRENDAN RADKE
Cairns Mayor Bob Manning said the effects of the southern bushfires would be felt across the nation. PICTURE: BRENDAN RADKE

Mayor Bob Manning believes clever, targeted marketing will be crucial to riding out the coming tough period - and even that will be a hard slog without a tourist levy.

"The one way we can change that is to get out in the marketplace with more money," he said.

"We live in a world that has its share of worries, and I don't see anything to indicate 2020 is going to have a tremendous surge in tourism.

"I hope I'm wrong."

Cr Manning said international media coverage of the southern bushfires would affect the entire nation.

"By the same token, we could cop a whack from domestic tourists," he said.

"If you look out your back window and see flames coming through the trees, you're probably not going to be inclined to go on holiday."