Australia has an image issue right now. Once a reliable allure to travelers across the globe, Australia’s exotic wildlife and landmark tourist destinations have been severely damaged due to ravaging bushfires. With these fires becoming more devastating year on year, are we likely to see a reduction in the number of visitors who are adding Australia as the next stamp in their passport? The simple answer is yes.
On top of that, Australia is a travel destination that is a major decision for holidaymakers. Travelers may no longer be willing to strap themselves in for a multi-hour flight, spending thousands of dollars, if the Oceanic destination is dangerous or its sites have been destroyed.
These concerns raise questions about how Australia’s government is currently navigating its tourism crisis and what steps it should implement to repair and revitalize the $40+ billion industry. The challenges are real, but not insurmountable.
Australia needs to understand what forces are in and out of its control
Part of the fear generated by the bushfires was the uncertainty of how far the fires themselves could spread. The country tried implementing a grid system — where a fire is contained in one pocket to stop it from spreading to another — but powerful photographs of vacationers trapped on a beach indicated to the world that the devastation had grown out of control.
This isn’t to suggest that Australia has no tools at its disposal to combat a crisis. They are one of the countries with the least amount of debt in the world at just over 40 percent of the country’s GDP in 2018. Australia can invest in resources and recovery efforts without having to worry about drastic economic setbacks or taking loans from larger superpowers.
For tourism, this means revitalizing sites that were destroyed, emphasizing new landmarks and regions to lure travelers, and being cognizant of whatever factors can harm the industry, both real fires and figurative ones. Rebuilding a tourist site that was destroyed may not be worth the effort if the elements that made that location enticing are no longer present. But emphasizing a new traveler location while considering the physical, economic and social dangers that threaten it, can be a better course of action.
Australia’s tourism industry is both isolated and interconnected
The tourism industry has always been growth-focused. More hotels, more flight options, more bells, whistles and enhancements on any part of the traveling experience possible. When something like the bushfires in Australia happens, tourism officials within other countries would be foolish to turn a blind eye, considering it to be an isolated incident with no impact overseas.
The amalgamation of several different issues that Australian tourism experienced can be replicated in other countries with similar climate statuses, such as Egypt, Turkey or those on the Eastern Mediterranean Basin. Drier conditions helped to fan the bushfire’s flame in Australia; similar high heats in those other nations could spell trouble for travelers. And one nation’s health issues may relocate to a new country, such as a coronavirus victim traveling between different nations and states.
As for the industries in these countries that suffer, others will thrive. Travelers who were planning to go to Australia won’t just not travel, they’ll end up traveling to new places or in different means. Coastal countries, like South Africa, Portugal or Spain, tend to benefit from a migration of visitors who may have originally opted to go somewhere else. But no country can rely solely on its destination prestige to save them alone. Tourism officials in Australia should also be gravely aware of this. They need to act now and showcase to tourists that Australia very much remains open for business.
In 2004, Thailand was struck by a massive tsunami, devastating the country’s infrastructure and taking hundreds of thousands of lives. But one thing that enabled the country to recover was that it kept its doors open to a steady stream of tourists from across the globe.
Australia can follow in Thailand’s footsteps by encouraging tourism even in the aftermath of devastating events. They need to demonstrate that they have the capability, know-how and organization to not only recover from this tragedy, but to also make the country more resilient for residents and tourists in the future.
For a western tourism role model, Australia could turn to Florida. The Sunshine State is so accustomed to the threat of hurricanes that preparation and recovery efforts run like clockwork. Australia and other nations could assess the particular risks that disasters pose to their tourism industries and have contingencies and measures in place to handle each and every outcome. A disaster may not be able to be avoided, but it can be mitigated and minimized with preparation.
Dr. Alan Fyall is the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, the Visit Orlando Endowed Chair, the Interim Chair of the Tourism, Events and Attractions Department and Graduate Programs’ Director at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, University of Central Florida and UCF Online.