Nowhere in Australia had a greater proportion of international tourists than far north Queensland pre-COVID.
The iconic tourism hubs of Cairns and Port Douglas were packed with big spending Chinese, Japanese, European and American tourists through to March this year.
But international border closures have meant zero inbound business over the past six or seven months.
Domestic business has also been decimated by the Queensland government’s strict interstate border closures, which Ken Chapman, Chairman of Tourism Tropical North Queensland, pictured, hopes will end soon.
“Absolutely, we’ve been in a very tough place with border closures,” says Chapman, a prominent local businessman who owns the popular Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.
“We have more international tourists as a percentage of travel markets than any other destination in the country.
“Overall international is in the order of 40 per cent but for most businesses – reef operators, tour operators – it’s more like 60 or 70 per cent.
“If I look at my business, Skyrail, 60 per cent is normal.”
But no international tourists can travel to Australia at present and the future remains extremely uncertain for at least the next 12 months.
However there is cause for optimism, and Chapman is excited with the potential of domestic travel.
There was a brief period several months ago when Queensland’s borders were open to tourists from NSW and Victoria (its major domestic market) and the response was enthusiastic.
Meanwhile Queenslanders – who can travel within the state – have been heading north to the Queensland tropics in significant numbers.
At one point Brisbane-Cairns was Australia’s busiest air route, which also says much about the lack of general aviation traffic in the country.
“We’re doing remarkably well out of the markets that can get here because people are desperate to have a holiday and escape the lockdown and pressures that COVID’s been bringing,” says Chapman.
“We’re certainly facing adversity but from adversity comes opportunity.”
He says “it’s probably fair to say at times Cairns gets forgotten” by Australians and concedes a lack of domestic marketing budget is factor with the destination putting virtually all its eggs in the international tourism basket.
But that’s set to change with the launch of a new campaign – the first in a long, long time – targeting the domestic market called ‘Summer in Tropics’.
Chapman says Tourism Tropical North Queensland is putting $1 million toward the campaign with another $5 million coming from industry partners.
Now all desperate local tourism operators now need is for the state borders to reopen to the region’s crucial east coast markets of NSW and Victoria.
That will be the signal to roll out the welcome mat.
“Part of this opportunity, and I see it as that, is that we’ll be able to have bigger and better marketing campaigns to get the message out that Cairns has changed, it’s not the sleepy little town it used to be,” says Chapman.
“It’s a fantastic world-class tourism destination.”
Chapman says “it’s been tough but we’re surviving and we’ll do a lot better if people come up and visit.”