Australia’s hoteliers and accommodation providers are excitedly preparing for the return of international tourists after almost two years of border closures.

On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Australia will reopen to vaccinated travellers from February 21. Unvaccinated visa holders will still require a valid travel exemption to enter Australia and must adhere to state and territory quarantine requirements.

“Today’s announcement will give certainty to our vital tourism industry, and allow them to start planning, hiring and preparing for our reopening,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s office read.

The announcement comes days after New Zealand announced a staged reopening of its borders, which will see international tourists shut out for most of 2022.

In 2018-19, tourism generated more than $60 billion for the Australian economy, with more than 660,000 jobs dependent on the industry, according to ABS data.

The reopening is being widely welcomed by Australia’s travel and accommodation industry, including Marriott International, which operates 27 hotels around Australia and has two openings planned for Melbourne in March.

“The return of international travel is indeed very welcome news for the tourism industry,” said Marriott International Area Vice President – Australia, New Zealand & Pacific, Sean Hunt.

“This renewed flow of travel will allow our hotels around Australia to start to gear operations at full capacity and welcome a broader audience of international guests.”

Skilled workers to boost recovery

Widespread labour losses of up to 35% alongside a skills shortage has been a major challenge for the sector in recent months, with many businesses unable to fill positions. The return of skilled workers is expected to bring a much-needed boost to hospitality.

Accor Pacific’s newly appointed CEO, Sarah Derry, told HM it’s “great news” for Australia’s economy.

“Opening the borders will bring skilled workers and students back, which will boost the hotel industries workforce and enable us to deliver the best quality experiences for our guests,” she said.  

Hilton Asia Pacific Area Vice President and Head of Australasia, Paul Hutton, said the announcement is a wonderful milestone that will help usher in a new age of international travel.

“As part of wider industry efforts, Hilton has been encouraging our leaders to jumpstart travel and tourism, as well as support any policies that encourage people to stay and return to the industry,” he said.

“We are finalising plans to encourage workers – such as international working holiday makers – to choose Hilton as part of their exciting Australian experience.”

IHG Hotels & Resorts’ SVP Managing Director – Japan Australasia & Pacific, Leanne Harwood, echoed this sentiment, saying it’s a great time to join the industry.

“It’s so uplifting to know that we’ll soon be able to welcome international guests to our hotels again, as well as to offer international students, backpackers and other visitors rewarding hospitality careers once more,” she said.

“There’s never been a better time to work in our industry and [we] have never been better prepared to welcome the world back to our shores.”

In relation to visitor demographics, Harwood expects business travel will be quick to rebound.

“While I don’t think we’ll see an immediate flood of tourists, I think business travellers are ready and waiting at the blocks – in fact we have several IHG people itching to visit,” she said.

Confidence is key

Tourism Accommodation Australia (TAA) CEO, Michael Johnson, said the reopening of borders will promote confidence in Australia once again.

“Occupancy in our major gateways of Sydney and Melbourne are sitting around 30 per cent and we cannot begin to mount a solid recovery until international travellers return and confidence is restored,” he said.   

“This will also restore confidence in our international students and working holiday makers when they know our borders are open to the world.” 

The move will also boost confidence within the industry, according to TFE Hotels Group Chief Operating Officer, Chris Sedgwick.

“Obviously, the international border reopening is a great step forward for tourism across the board,” he said.

“And it gives tourism operators the confidence that the recovery roadmap is on track, which is a very good thing.”

While the Accommodation Association welcomed the decision, chief executive Richard Munro warned that a consistent approach is needed.

“Tourism and the many, many businesses including our hotels, motels and accommodation providers and the people we employ need to have a commitment from Government at all levels on this,” Munro said.

“Tourism cannot be a political football and we can’t afford to invest in ramping up for a return of international travellers only to have borders shut, quarantine requirements change or be re-introduced or vaccination frameworks to be amended. Put bluntly, the political point scoring has to end.”

“Consumer, corporate and sector confidence has taken a continual beating through all of this, and we can’t afford anything that further impacts that.”

Australia as a bucket list destination

After the billions of dollars in lost export revenue over the last two years, Australian Tourism Export Council (ATEC) is eager to see Australia regain some of the global tourism market share.

“Australia is an incredible destination and one that enjoyed a place at the top of the global travel bucket list prior to covid closing our borders back in March 2020, and we can see a strong future for our industry,” said ATEC Managing Director, Peter Shelley.

“While other destinations are already back online and welcoming visitors, Australia has been off the global destination list for quite some time and there is significant pent-up demand as we look forward.”

Shelley said the challenge for our industry is to meet this demand successfully and believes government funding is necessary to help tourism businesses rebuild.

“Given the tourism industry has taken a devastating hit to its skills base, experience, expertise and global sales networks, we urge the Government to outline a significant funding commitment to our industry in next month’s budget as a sign of its support for what has been a hugely valuable economic contributor for more than a decade,” he said.

New Zealand slow to reopen

Meanwhile, New Zealand is facing a much longer road to recovery, with a staged reopening leaving international travellers shut out for most of 2022.

“While it’s pleasing that a path towards re-opening has been announced, ultimately it’s disappointing to still have no visibility on when international travellers will be allowed to enter New Zealand without spending the first seven or ten days in self-isolation,” said Hotel Council Aoteora Strategic Director, James Doolan.

“Even a backstop date around October 2022 would be helpful, giving tourism businesses the certainty to market New Zealand tourism product for the 2022/23 summer season.

“While New Zealand’s government has signalled a willingness to reconsider isolation on arrival in future, the lack of a firm date for isolation-free travel makes it near-impossible for tourism businesses to start recruitment and marketing.  Meanwhile, Australian tourism businesses are well ahead of New Zealand in what’s expected to be a competitive market as the world reconnects after COVID.”  

Doolan said tourism product has a long lead time, and without a firm reopening date, New Zealand’s recovery will be “slower and harder than it needs to be”.

“Given the current Omicron outbreak in New Zealand is expected to peak next month and Australia will fully open its borders to foreign tourists in late February, Hotel Council Aotearoa is hoping that New Zealand authorities remain nimble and willing to accelerate this latest reopening plan if conditions allow,” he said.

“It will be critical that Government also offers targeted financial assistance to the hotel sector and other tourism businesses, all of which have been operating without any international guests for almost two years straight.  Until now, financial support has been linked to periods of domestic lockdown, rather than to border closures and the complete absence of all international tourists.”