The old saying that you could fire a gun in the main street and not hit anybody certainly applied to Cairns on the May Day public holiday. We rolled into Cairns, far north Queensland’s biggest city, believing we would struggle to find a car park. Turning into Sheridan Street, we spotted an RV Parking sign. Once we’d picked a shady spot in the deserted car park (six cars and a motor home), we went to meet a friend for lunch in the CBD.
“They’re closed – c u at ‘Sauce’ down road” our friend texted.
We had just arrived at the first rendezvous to be told by a waitress the restaurant was closing (at noon!).
Just down the road, the boutique brewery and bar ‘Sauce’ was open and serving meals. Only a few customers there too, so before long we were tucking in to coral trout, chips and salad and other dishes.
It was hard to reconcile the deserted CBD with the image of Cairns as a magnet for international and domestic tourists. Trouble is, visitors from overseas have been absent since March 2020. Domestic travellers tend to arrive at the airport, hire a car and head for the Daintree, the Cape or the Atherton Tablelands. We’d just been staying on the Tablelands and found, on a Sunday walk around Lake Eacham, that half of Australia had decided to do the same thing. Travel stats for the May long weekend may take some time to surface, but it would be great if it emulated the region’s Easter experience. The ABC reported that more than 70,000 flew into Cairns and spread themselves around FNQ (Port Douglas resorts reported 90% occupancy).
After lunch in Cairns on May Day, we met up with the extended family at a resort in Palm Cove. My niece, a Cairns local, did not think it peculiar that the city would be deserted on a public holiday,
“We north Queenslanders take our public holidays seriously!”
Just for sport, I googled accommodation in Palm Cove for May 3 and found only three options – two of which were $900+ for an overnight stay in a three-bedroom apartment. Good thing SWPR booked our caravan spot months ago.
After checking in, I strolled along the beach, observing the swimmers taking advantage of the stinger net. Signs abound warning of marine stingers and crocodiles (which have been sighted swimming in the ocean). Our local source informed me the stinger ‘season’ now spans October to May, which probably explains why FNQ’s peak tourism season is June to September.
Marine stingers have been responsible for 63 deaths since records began in the 19th century. In the most recent case, a teenager from Bamaga was killed by a box jellyfish. Hundreds of people get stung every year, so the warning signs that abound at FNQ beaches should not be taken lightly.
A quick stroll around the Cairns CBD reveals the damage inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic and associated restrictions. There are lots of empty shops with ‘for lease’ signs on the windows.
The story of how Covid-19 decimated Cairns’ tourism industry is partially revealed in passenger arrival data kept by Cairns Airport Pty Ltd. For example, only 300 international passengers arrived in Cairns in March 2021, compared with 22,619 in March 2020. Domestic visitor numbers held up, however, with 185,109 passengers in March 2021, compared with 181,307 in March 2020.
Cairns Council statistics show 799,000 international visitors visited the far north in 2019, as did 1.1 million domestic tourists. A report to Cairns Council showed how Covid travel restrictions affected Tourism Tropical North Queensland’s activities in 2020. More than $2.2 billion of visitor spending was lost – $1.6 billion of in domestic visitor expenditure and $650 million lost due to international border closures.The Federal government recently sought to help the tourism sector by introducing airfare subsidies. The Queensland government did its bit by offering $200 travel vouchers to encourage domestic tourism.
Tourism Tropical North Queensland chief executive Mark Olsen told Brisbane Times that if FNQ could secure its share of the subsidised airfares, an extra 5,000 to 7,000 visitors could land each week and inject up to $1 million a day to the local economy.
On our slow road trip from southern Queensland to the tropical north, we have seen plenty of evidence to suggest Australians are replacing international travel with forays to the outback and the far north.
A recent survey by KPMG found that Australians had been saving hard during the pandemic and domestic travel was No. 1 on their bucket lists. Some 61% of respondents planned a trip between January and June 2021 and 72% planned a domestic holiday between July and December 2021. KPMG noted that people would have accrued leave during the lockdown periods. This meant they now have the time and the money for domestic travel. The challenge will be to convince those of us with the wanderlust to spend 70% of what we spent on international travel in 2019 (or whatever year we last went abroad) on domestic travel.
Tourism Australia leaves us in no doubt of the importance of tourism to our economy. The total spend by tourists in 2019 was $126.1 billion, $45.4 billion of which was attributed to international tourism, with 9.3 million people flying into Australia in 2018-2019. Almost half of the overnight spend (44%) was in regional Australia. In 2019 the industry employed 666,000 people. JobKeeper may well have salvaged some of those jobs, but where tourism goes from here is anybody’s guess.
Our family convoy has done its bit for the sector, paying for accommodation and meals in Palm Cove. Yesterday some paid $255 a head to go for a reef cruise while me and the Bro’ drove to the Daintree and spent about $50 a head.
This weekend we’re heading to Cooktown with a side tour to Laura to explore Indigenous art and culture. Then it’s a slow 10-day trip home via Canarvon Gorge. For all of the modelling in KPMG’s report, I doubt very much we would spend 70% of our budget for Canada and Europe where we travelled in 2010.
A few notes on last week’s commentary on Australia’s most dangerous critters. The photo was not a blue ringed octopus as we suspected, but it aptly illustrated the story. Also, while I did mention five deaths attributed to paralysis ticks, they were not included in the list and maybe they should be. This link is for Michael, who made the point, and anyone who might have missed this 2017 post.
People who have never heard of mammalian meat allergy think it must be fake news. It is not! We personally know three people who can no longer indulge in the Sunday roast lamb..