‘They told people not to come’: Australian bushfires ravage tourism industry

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Pillars of fire and smoke from bushfires are tarnishing Australia’s reputation for pristine landscapes teeming with wildlife and wreaking havoc on tourism, operators say, as authorities are forced to cancel concerts, close parks and evacuate cities.

Smoke billows during bushfires in Bairnsdale, Victoria, Australia, December 30, 2019 in this photo obtained from social media. Picture taken December 30, 2019. Mandatory Credit GLEN MOREY/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. COMPULSORY CREDIT. NO RESALE. NO ARCHIVES. -RC2G7E976JE4

Smoke enveloped entire towns and drove air quality to unhealthy levels, with at least 10 people dying in the blazes last week, while colonies of animals such as koalas and flying foxes were destroyed.

“Seeing all the fire footage on TV and social media isn’t going to help, it damages Australia’s reputation as a safe tourist destination,” said Shane Oliver, chief economist at AMP Capital.

“This comes at a time when the economy was already fragile,” he added, ranking tourism the fourth largest Australian export that officials were counting on to help offset a domestic reluctance to spend.

Bushfires that have been burning for weeks near the Blue Mountains World Heritage Site west of Sydney in the southeastern state of New South Wales have driven tourists away.

As visitors take to social media to warn others to stay away, the number of buses full of tourists each day has fallen to around four from 15 or 20, said Stacey Reynolds, receptionist at Blue Mountains Backpacker Hostel in Katoomba.

“They told people not to come in and it affected everything from restaurants to motels to backpackers and cafes,” she added. “The streets are empty.

Although there are no national data released on tourism since the fires broke out in late spring, Australia attracted 2.71 million holidaymakers last summer, up 3, 2% from the previous year, as many fled winter in the northern hemisphere.

Hotels in the biggest city of Sydney saw their number of guests drop by 10% in December, the Accommodation Association of Australia said.

“The fires and smoke have had a real damage to Sydney’s brand and reputation,” added its managing director, Dean Long.

Scenic World’s train and cable network in the Blue Mountains saw 50,000 fewer visitors in December, down 50% from last year, said experience manager Amanda Byrne.

Scenic World was open, but area hotels have more cancellations than reservations, she said.

Government agency Tourism Australia, which released a new advert last month to lure Britons to beautiful beaches and stunning scenery, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Scorching temperatures and bushfires, which have also scorched vineyards in South Australia and warmed the generally cool island state of Tasmania, will hit the sector hard, said Judith Mair, who studies tourism, the environment and the consumer behavior.

“It will be in stages – immediately with evacuations, relocations and cancellations, but also in the longer term as tourists buy holidays based on a destination’s image and Australia is badly affected,” he said. said Mair, a professor at the University of Queensland Business School.

Hundreds of national parks in the southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria, visited by 100 million visitors a year, have closed.

With fires nearby, Christopher Warren, co-owner of a bed and breakfast in Kangaroo Valley in New South Wales, said he had to evacuate his guests.

“The worst-case scenario is that we would be hit by fire and our business would be destroyed,” said Warren, who considered the best-case scenario to be more than 80,000 Australian dollars ($56,048) in lost revenue, due from the disruption of three of its busiest months.

Paul Mackie, who uses AirBnB to rent an apartment on Sydney’s Bondi Beach to British and European tourists during the peak summer holiday period, has been hit with last-minute cancellations.

“I had reservations for this whole period over the next two months, but many canceled because they said they saw the news of the fires,” Mackie added.

AirBnB declined to comment.

A spokesperson for Sydney Airport said it did not have recent statistics on whether the fires were hitting arrival. A Qantas spokeswoman declined to say whether the wildfires had affected bookings.

The fires have thrown a spotlight on Australia’s environmental policies, most recently criticized at a UN summit in Madrid, said Susanne Becken, professor of sustainable tourism at Griffith University in Queensland.

“The government’s response to the climate crisis doesn’t bode well…and it’s not good for tourism,” Becken said.

(This story corrects the title in paragraph 11 to Director of General Manager Experience, and paraphrases the quote in paragraph 12 to show that Byrne was talking about hotel reservations at Blue Mountains in general, not Scenic World specifically.)

Reporting by Paulina Duran in Sydney; Additional reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Wayne Cole; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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