23 Feb 2021

Tour industry must focus on flexibility

Published in The Advertiser, Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Back last year, when we urged South Australians to “get a room”, we wanted to help our tourism operators out of hibernation.

As it turns out, the good people of SA quite like the idea of discovering their own backyard. They are still out there, in record numbers, booking out regional accommodation, while at the same time giving CBD hotels a life-saving spike.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, tourism in our state was at a record high – and while the past 12 months have been a challenge, we are seeing the green shoots of a recovery.

New South Australian Tourism Commission research, provided by global analytic firm STR, shows a ‘better than last year’ performance. Regional South Australia enjoyed the highest December occupancy on record in December 2020 (60 per cent), even better than December 2019 (55 per cent). That’s quite impressive when you consider that December 2019 was before COVID, when we still had interstate and international visitors in SA, and tourism was booming.

While it’s been wonderful to see South Australians embrace holidaying in their own state, I know that not all areas of the tourism industry are benefiting equally from these local travel increases. There are so many wonderful examples of resilience and flexibility in the sector but it’s been a tough time – and for some a devastatingly tough time.

Data released yesterday from the national Tourism & Transport Forum (TTF) offers a sobering estimation that up to 27,000 South Australian tourism industry jobs could be at risk when the JobKeeper wage subsidy ends. While industry groups call for additional support, the SATC focus since the pandemic hit is on assisting businesses to adapt to the ever-changing environment – from ‘stay at home’ orders over Easter last year to the moving feast that has become of interstate markets.

In this time of uncertainty, we must be open to change. We know that international travel is not going to be on the agenda in the foreseeable future – so we are working with operators to help them improve and diversify their business.  Our Tourism Industry Development Fund for example, means operators will be able to attract more visitors and get a higher return on their offering.

As a state, we do have to look at the changing market, and reimagine what consumers want. Without the international visitors, let’s see what more we can do to grow our domestic market, and give Australians a taste of what South Australia has to offer. The 2021 Year of South Australian Wine aims to do just that – current research shows that SA is the top associated state for credible wineries and wine regions in the nation, presenting an opportunity to cement our state’s position as the wine destination of Australia and drive interstaters to our wine events and experiences. 

Our vouchers have stimulated travel within the state like never before. And the third round, which is set to include tours and experiences aims to stimulate an area of the sector we know has felt the downturn in internationals the most.

Rounds one and two of the vouchers have delivered more than $31 million in direct financial benefit into tourism – and more than 62,000 room nights booked. That is money helping our sector, and keeping people in jobs.

Regional hotels were also strong in January, recording their highest revenues for any month on record, exceeding $20m in monthly revenue for the first time. This strong performance was also felt in the Caravan and Camping sector, with the Caravan Industry Association reporting cabin accommodation across their 34 parks also hit record highs.

More than 40,000 people were employed in South Australian tourism prior to COVID – across 18,000 businesses and we’re doing everything we can to keep as many of those in our industry.  There was a silver lining last week - the latest jobs data from the ABS shows the November 2020 quarter (when compared to the pre-COVID level) South Australia was the only state to record an increase in employment in the accommodation and food services industry, increasing by 1.8% or 1,100 people.

That’s a show of confidence in SA, and gives our tourism operators real hope to lift their eyes towards a broader recovery, and for us to return to the record $8.1 billion visitor economy South Australia had this time last year.

Rodney Harrex is the Chief Executive of the South Australian Tourism Commission