What is the current situation of the Australian bushfires?
As of February 2020, 150 Australian bushfires are still burning with over 7 million hectares of land scorched since the first 50 fires broke out across Queensland in September 2019. The states of New South Wales and Victoria are the worst affected but there have been fires in every single Australian state.
One of the worst droughts that Australia has ever seen combined with record breaking temperatures and strong winds created ‘perfect conditions’ for the fires to spread with devastating speed.
The shocking statistics report the deaths of at least 33 people, the destruction of over 3,000 homes and the loss of up to 1 billion animals.
Widespread rains are now forecast in all the affected areas and whilst rain will help firefighters to control the remaining fires, Australia is still battling the elements as air pollution and flood warnings are being put in place across the country, all of which adds to the negative effect on tourism.
How has Queensland been affected?
Queensland briefly declared a state of emergency in November 2019. The fires were brought under control in early December but not before 6.2 million acres were burned. The damaged land including national park which could potentially have a very severe effect on tourism.
As Cameron Dick, the Minister responsible for the Queensland Reconstruction Authority has pointed out; “In Queensland, most of our tourist trade is centred on the natural environment: national parks, wildlife, vineyards.”
The historic Binna Burra Lodge in Lamington National Park is one such place that has been reduced to charred ruins by the fires. The heritage-listed buildings were surrounded by rainforest that is usually very fire resistant. The face that a fire started in this rainforest area of Queensland demonstrates the changing weather patterns and Richard Thornton, CEO of Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC worrying stated that the dry conditions mean that no areas can be considered ‘safe’.
Going forward, the chairman of Binna Burra Lodge, Nick Oakes, will be taking these ecosystem changes into account as the reconstruction of the lodge begins in order to prevent future fires. Other Queensland tourism locations will no doubt be watching closely as Mr. Oakes replants with more fire-resistant plants and rebuilds with bunkers which could save lives during a bushfire.
These fires only affected around 1.2% of the Scenic Rim area however the chain reaction of cancelled bookings and changed plans is much more dramatic for local businesses. The timing of the fires also coincided with the usual booking time and as a result many tourists were influenced into booking alternative destinations away from Queensland.
In Canungra, with its tourist driven economy, the Summer school holiday bookings dropped by 50%. The follow-on effect is that less cash comes into the town through holiday accommodations, cafes and other service providers and some small tourism businesses may not survive the downturn. The same story is apparent in many other Queensland townships that rely upon tourism suggesting that the effects of these fires will continue well into the future.
Some tourism operators are looking at alternative ideas to entice visitors back to Queensland. After the closure of World Heritage listed Mount Barney National Park due to the bushfires, the owner of Mount Barney Lodge, Innes Larkin saw a catastrophic 90% drop in reservations. Mr Larkin has built an illuminated sculpture trail to encourage tourists who are put off by the lack of marked trails available in the park.
As of February 2020 the majority of Queensland’s tourism attractions and locations are operating as normal and are largely unaffected by the widespread bushfires, according to Tourism Australia.
However, viral social media has not helped to pull tourists back to Queensland with depictions of an entire country in flames.
An example is this post, shared by Rihanna to her millions of followers.
Artist Anthony Hearsey created a visual rendering of NASA fire and heat spots taken over a period of one month. Many of these ‘burning’ areas were short lived fires that were controlled and extinguished and some areas are simply hot which could mean that they are an industrial plant or metal roofs superheated by the sun.
Many users of social media have assumed that this was a live image of Australia and it has been shared frequently, encouraging the notion that Queensland still has ongoing and severe bushfires.
The head of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council, Daniel Gschwind, agrees that the media’s reporting of their bushfires will have a long lasting effect on Queensland tourism, “We’re worried about the reputational impact of the relentless coverage of the bushfire drama internationally.”
Mair, a professor at the University of Queensland Business School pointed out that the long term damage to tourism will stem from the media’s new depictions of Australia; “tourists buy holidays based on the image of a destination and Australia’s is being badly affected.”
Tourism Tropical North Queensland supports this idea, reporting a 60% to 70% drop in their international visitors in January, caused primarily by visitors believing that the fires are still severe in Queensland. Their immediate plan is to encourage Queenslanders to holiday in their own state, working alongside Tourism Australia’s new ‘Holiday Here This Year’ campaign aimed at boosting local tourism.
But prominent figures are also taking action. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk contacted American President directly asking him to tone down US travel warnings about Australia, explaining that Queensland has no fires that are out of control or threatening.
The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern made a surprise holiday visit to Tamborine Mountain in Queensland in January, sending an international message to let the world know that Queensland is still very much open for business.
What is the outlook for tourism in Queensland in the wake of the bushfires?
There are currently no threatening fires being reported by the Queensland Fire & Emergency Services and Tourism Australia is reporting that all the major Queensland tourism destinations are operating as normal.
Before travelling we would always recommend that visitors check the bushfire activity website which has live information about any fires and remain aware of the weather and fire conditions throughout any holidays.
Southern Queensland is being supported by a $6 million tourism recovery package co-funded by the Federal and Queensland governments. This package will specifically market Queensland to encourage tourists back to the area as well as being used to redevelop damaged infrastructure and support local communities.
In November, the Queensland government also launched 2 new campaigns targeting the European market, promoting the Great Barrier Reef as the perfect escape from a European Winter.
These marketing initiatives will promote a positive image of Queensland and encourage tourism in the area however the after effects of the bushfires are likely to be felt for some time. The best thing that we can do to help is to visit Queensland and spread the word that it is business as normal as far as tourism is concerned.