Families grieving for lost homes and loved ones, burned koalas rescued from charred forests: The devastation of Australia’s bushfire crisis has tainted the country’s reputation as a safe and alluring holiday destination.
Images of the unprecedented scale of this summer’s blazes have evoked global shock and an outpouring of sympathy.
Thousands of tourists have been evacuated from coastal towns, international visitors have cancelled flights, and the US Department of State upgraded its security advice for Australia, warning travellers to “exercise increased caution”.
Tourism Australia was forced to suspend an upbeat advertising campaign featuring pop star Kylie Minogue that was launched in the middle of the crisis after the ad was met with incredulity about what many saw as poor timing.
More than 9mn overseas tourists visited Down Under in the 12 months to June 2019, adding almost Aus$45bn (USD31bn) to the economy, while Australians holidaying across the vast continent country spent another Aus$100bn.
Tourism Australia managing director Phillipa Harrison said it was “too early to quantify the full impact of the bushfires.
But others estimate the losses have already run into “billions”, with the fires hitting during the peak summer holiday period and emptying whole regions of vacationers.
In tourism-reliant towns such as Mogo in New South Wales — where a bushfire reduced homes and businesses to twisted metal and ash — the impact has been felt immediately.
Ten days after the blaze roared through, most remaining shops were shuttered, unable to open until electricity was restored, while the handful that had re-opened were running on generators.
As the bushfire threat has eased in recent days, Australian politicians have exhorted visitors to return to fire-ravaged areas and also not ignore destinations untouched by the disaster.
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham emphasised the country was “still very much open for business”.
“There is much misinformation circulating online and in some media that exaggerates the geographical reach of these tragic bushfires,” he said in a statement.
“I urge people with a booking or considering travel to ensure they have the facts and don’t compound the harm to tourism operators by unnecessarily staying away.”
It is expected to take months or even years to rebuild Mogo and other devastated towns — raising fears some residents will leave to find employment elsewhere.
“It’s a critical issue because you don’t want to lose that workforce out of the tourist towns, and so there’s going to have to be some really strategic thinking and programmes in place to retain those people in communities,” Griffith Institute for Tourism director Sarah Gardiner said.
But some are optimistic the country’s tourism industry can weather the crisis.
“Many countries have gone through natural disasters on the sort of scale we’re seeing with the Australian bushfires now and have bounced back pretty effectively — when they’ve got their strategies right,” University of Technology Sydney lecturer David Beirman said, pointing to Japan’s recovery in the wake of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster.
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