Uluru tourism operators on ‘life support’ as COVID-19 smashes business

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Most of the planes Chris Mitskinis flies over Uluru are now sitting dormant.

It has been FlyUluru’s quietest season on record and, with temperatures beginning to rise in Central Australia once again, the situation is not expected to improve.

“We’re looking at sticking out the summer, purely because we hope for an uptick next year,” Mr Mitskinis said.

“If that uptick doesn’t come, I’m not sure if we’ll manage to justify the costs that we’re bearing at the moment.”

Before COVID-19, tourism comprised 4.2 per cent of the NT economy, with $2.6 billion each year circulating through small businesses like FlyUluru.

Figures are beginning to emerge showing the scale of the industry’s downturn, but a walk around Yulara speaks volumes.

At the sunrise viewing area this time last year, tourists jostled for prime positions.

Now only a handful take in the view, with ample space to set up tripods or pull up camping chairs.

Industry’s darkest days

Tourism Central Australia (TCA) CEO Danial Rochford said tourism operators were worried.

“We are on life support at the moment. Our industry is very much facing its darkest days,” he said.

Some of the first data illustrating the extent of the downturn was being collected in the tourist information centre Mr Rochford ran in Alice Springs.

“In July last year, we had almost 17,000 people go through the visitor information centre in Alice Springs,” he said.

“In July this year, we had just over 2,000, and most of those would have been locals with vouchers in hand.

“We cant sugar-coat it. It’s bad.”

As the effects of coronavirus started to take effect, the NT Government commissioned the Territory Economic Reconstruction Commission First Report that conceded there was a “real threat” small tourism operators would not survive the off season.

The report recommended the NT Government continue to pressure the Commonwealth to acquire $95 million to increase the speed of Kakadu National Park upgrades.

It also recommended continued, targeted support for operators.

Major parties pitch to voters

The NT Government has taken steps to secure the health of all Territorians, which meant closing borders to tourist markets.

But on the eve of an NT Election, tourism operators want clarity on how future governments plan to keep the industry afloat throughout the pandemic.

In statements provided to the ABC, the major parties — Labor, Country Liberals, Territory Alliance — outlined their plans.

All major parties said they would increase investment in the sector, but different strategies were highlighted.

The governing Labor Party said they would continue a Territory Voucher Scheme until February, allowing NT residents to use government money to subsidise their holiday.

The Labor Party also said they would focus on completing major upgrades to national parks and deliver the National Aboriginal Art Gallery in Alice Springs.

The Territory Alliance Party — a new party made up of well-known political figures in the NT — raised the idea of travel bubbles with WA, SA and Tasmania.

It also said rebuilding tourism infrastructure like signage and campgrounds was a priority, and that it would pursue options for cabotage rights.

And the Country Liberal Party said their strategy would revolve around a comprehensive sales-led approach.

The Country Liberal Party also highlighted the importance of upgrading connecting roads, and said it would work with the Federal Government to organise free trade show opportunities for Territory tourism businesses.

The most important issue for Mr Mitskinis was that he and his fellow tourism operators in Yulara were considered in any future plans to revitalise tourism in the NT.

“Don’t forget about us down at the bottom here,” he said.

“We’re a small town but hopefully meaningful enough to have some thoughts thrown our way.”

By Oliver Gordon (Original ABC Article)