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Pandemic drives tourism boom in the outback

Although it may be hard for international visitors (and even some Australians) to visit Australia at the moment, it seems that some areas are benefitting from a Covid-driven tourism boom. In particular outback Queensland has seen a significant growth in tourism in recent months.

Luxury retreat owner Lyn French, who runs a property 450 km west of Townsville commented: “It’s a terrible thing to say, but in many respects COVID has been our best friend. We now have people eager to see the beauty of our country, with the added assurance they can do so in comfort and style.” The arrival of Covid-19 has meant that many of the aims of the Outback Queensland Tourism Plan are now being met or exceeded – in spite of the pandemic. The aim is to position Outback Queensland as the home of “the authentic and engaging Australian Outback experiences”, marketing the region to visitors who “Don’t just see the outback DO the outback”.

Recent years have also seen investment in new experiences and events that are now beginning to attract significant numbers of visitors. For example, the Australian Dinosaur Trail is expanding, helped by a 54-metre-long preserved set of sauropod footprints, which was shipped in from the original find location 60km away. The manager commented: "[2020] looked like a disaster year, (but) This year so far our visitation has probably been about double or better of what it was in any other year." The Eromanga Natural History Museum, which bills itself as “A museum in the heart of Australia”, generated a 25 per cent increase in regional tourism in the region since it opened five years ago, but there was a 200% increase in March 2021 compared to 2019 levels.

In the same region, the town of Winton has recently broken visitor level records, in spite of a long period of closure for the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum. In September 2020 there were more than double the number of visitors recorded in 2019. Visitors who usually head for the coast during the summer have also been heading inland.

In addition to new fixed attractions, nature has also given outback areas a helping hand. More plentiful rain has meant that for the first time in five years there is enough water to fill Lake Menindee, attracting first the wildlife and then the tourists. The area is now "Extremely, extremely, extremely busy," and local businesses are " crying out for staff … with the influx of people. We can't keep up. [Staff] are getting worn out on their shifts, and there's no let-up. We are seeing a lot of new visitors who would normally be in Bali or Europe and want somewhere to spend their money."

Visitors bring more than money. In a depopulated area such as the Australian outback, they can also be a source of knowledge and skills. Charleville Tourist Park owner Craig Alison said visitors to his park often brought knowledge with them and he uses their expertise to help run his park and maintain the surrounding environment. This is also an interesting example of relational travel, because activities co-created with visitors increase their sense of inclusion and ownership. Engagement with the place encourages them to take photos, talk to their friends, and motivate others to visit, and so it is also an effective means of place marketing.

However, success in developing outback tourism has created its own challenges. One of these is a lack of accommodation. In Hughenden the local council has started to collect data on the number if visitors who are unable to find accommodation, which gives a picture of potential missed income. Hughenden visitor numbers are already well above pre-pandemic levels, with about 10% more visitors than in 2019. At least 20 groups have been turned away because there were no rooms available. It is a similar story in nearby Richmond, where the 25-room Ammonite Inn has reached full capacity on many occasions, and has also turned many visitors away.

The tourist boom has also required hiring extra staff – a major challenge for remote outback locations. The Queensland Government has recognised the challenges of filling jobs in tourism, including the fact that the traditional flexible workforce provided by international backpackers has disappeared. A recent report from indicated that many businesses are now offering incentives such as free flights, additional annual leave and relocation costs to attract workers. Many in the tourism business in rural locations in Australia are now recognising their heavy reliance on backpacker labour, which was already being constrained by new tax laws even before the pandemic. It may also be some time before the easing of international travel restrictions begins to ease this problem.

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