Tens of thousands of Australians have been forced to abandon school holiday travel plans after states closed their borders in response to Sydney’s growing Covid outbreak, with the tourism industry predicting losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Sydneysiders who had been planning to go interstate or to regional New South Wales from the end of this week have had to cancel their holidays after all states and territories announced stricter border restrictions.
The new restrictions, which include bans on entry from either certain local government areas in Sydney’s south-eastern suburbs or the entirety of NSW, come into effect alongside a NSW government directive for residents and workers in the hotspot councils to avoid travelling outside of metropolitan Sydney.
Dean Long, Accommodation Association chief executive, said in the hours after NSW announced 16 new Covid cases and other states tightened their borders, there were “mass cancellations” reported.
He said Queensland’s tourism operators were hit particularly hard, with Sydney residents who had planned to escape cold weather over the school holiday fortnight cancelling “thousands of bookings in a couple of hours”.
For Cairns and the Gold Coast, occupancy rates over the school holidays have dropped by about 60% since Wednesday morning.
Sydney hotels have also been hit with cancellations. Long said one member hotel in the city’s CBD lost $40,000 worth of bookings in three hours on Wednesday afternoon.
Long also said regional tourism operators within NSW had been hit hard, with areas like the Hunter Valley losing 20% of their upcoming bookings in the hours after movement restrictions were introduced. This included Sydney residents who had been planning to holiday within their own state.
“If you’re in one of those LGAs you’ve got to lock down essentially. We can’t fully operate when those rules are in place.”
Long said cancellations were extending beyond the school holiday period too, a result of what he believed was a lack of certainty on when states would reopen to Sydney.
Long said before the pandemic, Australians typically booked holidays 70 days in advance, but that the current average is seven days.
Margy Osmond, chief executive of the Tourism and Transport Forum, said while it was not yet clear what the financial impact of Sydney’s Covid cluster would be within the industry, border closures would likely cost “hundreds of millions” of dollars in terms of tourism consumption across the country.
Osmond said the cancellations underscored the need for ongoing wage support specifically for the sector following the end of jobkeeper, as the federal government’s hotspot supports are limited to the location of the outbreak.
“The virus seems to be popping up to exactly match the school holiday cycle, it’s already happened this year and it’s very unfortunate,” Osmond said.
“The issue with this is, my great fear is for many businesses who were relying on school holidays to tide them over after a tough period without international travel, these latest border closures might be the moment they send that white flag up.”
Osmond echoed Long’s observation that inconsistency among the various state border closures, and lack of transparency about requirements to reopen, were affecting travellers’ sense of certainty and exacerbating cancellations and reluctance to book future trips.
“Ultimately the industry is so over this discussion of every state having a different approach. We are so far past the point when the national cabinet can keep saying it’s too hard to have a national response to border closures.”
She said she hoped the trend towards last-minute bookings could mean that Melburnians, who are set to be allowed into Queensland in time for the school holidays, will now be able to “pick up the slack” and secure the holiday bookings cancelled by Sydneysiders.
Virgin Australia announced it would adjust its planned flights over the school holidays and redeploy planes set aside for Sydney routes to increase frequencies on routes from Melbourne and Brisbane to holiday destinations such as Cairns, Darwin, the Gold Coast, Byron Bay and Hobart.