Point of no return: Pressure on Premier to open borders as tourism ‘hanging on’

Queensland tourism officials are calling on the Premier to address uncertainty surrounding when the state’s borders will open, saying continued restrictions will push operators to the point of no return.

May 20, 2020, updated May 20, 2020
Tourism operators in the far north say extending the border controls will further hurt the region's economy. Photo: Array

Tourism operators in the far north say extending the border controls will further hurt the region's economy. Photo: Array

Annastacia Palaszczuk had flagged easing the coronavirus travel ban by July but later conceded that might not happen until September.

Today, the Premier reiterated that the policy would be reviewed at the end of every month and she would take advice from the Chief Health Officer, Jeannette Young.

“We’ve got to protect Queenslanders,” Palaszczuk said.

Under questioning from journalists, Young said July was still possible, September more likely, but she could not rule out it being even later in the year. The number, and location, of new cases of COVID-19 was key, and Young believed the travel restrictions had protected Queensland from further outbreaks.

“We need to hold firm and we need to examine our domestic border restrictions very, very carefully,” Young said.

The uncertainty surrounding the border closure has angered tourism operators in far north Queensland who had been hopeful of capitalising on the region’s peak tourism season, which traditionally started in May.

The industry is worth $2.5 billion a year to the region, which only has one active case of coronavirus.

Queensland Tourism Industry Council chief executive Daniel Gschwind said the tourism-driven locations of Cairns and Port Douglas were in a “sorry state”.

“Every operator in north Queensland would tell you the same story: they’re hanging on desperately to rescuing some of the winter season for this year,” he said.

“We can only hold our breath so long under water, but at some point you have to come up for air.”

Cairns and Port Douglas ‘ghost towns’

The normally bustling Cairns esplanade is eerily quiet, with most restaurants and hotels closed at a time when it would normally be hard to secure a table.

Chamber of Commerce president Sally Mlikota said any decision to extend border closures beyond July would see many businesses pushed to the brink.

“My heart sank when I heard about the border being closed until September … there are quite a few business owners out there bracing themselves, trying to work out how on Earth we will survive having to push it out for longer,” Mlikota said.

“There will be a percentage of businesses who will not be able to survive; people are hurting and you can’t run a business on fresh air.”

Peak season approaching

Syrian billionaire Ghassan Aboud has built three five-star hotels in the Cairns CBD over the past two years at a cost of $500 million.

One hotel has closed, the opening of another has been delayed, while the third is operating at just 6 per cent capacity.

Crystalbrook Collection group director Geoff York said he would like to see the border re-open as soon as possible.

“I know the Premier is acting on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, she’s looking at the best interests of the industry,” Mr York said.

“If things do stay closed until September, I just hope there’s an industry left.

“July is high season in far north Queensland … there’s normally 8 million interstate visitors who come to Queensland every year.

“We will unite as an industry in asking the Premier and Chief Medical Officer to open the borders.”

The State Government today pledged $50 million towards a domestic advertising campaign to be launched early next month, encouraging Queenslanders to holiday at home.

– ABC / Kristy Sexton-McGrath and Kier Shorey

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