Gunner expected to bail out Territory tourism operators as industry reels over closed borders

by | May 20, 2020 | COVID-19, News | 0 comments

The Gunner Government is expected to announce a bailout package for Territory tourism operators this week, sources in the government have told the NT Independent.

Details are hazy at the moment but the program is expected to be called the “Bounce Back” or “Tourism Rebound” stimulus scheme that will help tourism operators stay in business while the industry recovers from the decision to keep the borders closed during what would be the Territory’s prime tourism season.

Tourism operators have previously said they don’t expect to make a profit until sometime next year, with thousands of jobs expected to be lost.

Earlier this month, Chief Minister Michael Gunner assembled a task force called the Rebound Tourism Commission to examine how best to help the industry survive the coronavirus pandemic. Its terms of reference were bleak, suggesting the industry may “never see a return to a pre-COVID-19 context”.

Commission chair Michael Bridge said on Wednesday morning that the industry was facing unprecedented challenges.

“I guess it’d be an understatement to even say ‘catastrophic’,” Mr Bridge said on Mix 104.9 of the effects of the pandemic on tourism here.

Mr Bridge said conversations about when the borders might open have been held at the department and ministerial level with nothing confirmed. He added he’d like a firm date for reopening provided so businesses can work with that in mind.

“I think the borders will open on 1 September,” he said. “Now, I would think if things continue nationally and particularly here in the Territory (with COVID-19 cases), there is an opportunity for that to be brought forward, and potentially, maybe from the first of August.”

But he said a lot of tourism operators would not be ready for that date, that tourists would be slow to arrive and that companies would be functioning at reduced capacity.

Gunner stands firm about reopening the Territory’s borders

Mr Gunner has not provided a firm date for reopening the Territory’s borders, despite growing pressure from the business community and federal leaders.

“I will open the borders when it’s safe,” he said on Tuesday. “And … it will be based on expert medical advice.”

Federal Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham also said on Tuesday that not opening domestic borders could be costly and states that remain shut will need to compensate tourism businesses.

“If one or two states were to hold out then they will be answerable to their tourism industry and will ultimately need to provide additional support to that industry,” he said.

It’s unclear where the money for yet another stimulus package would come from. The Gunner Government has claimed it has already thrown $400 million at the COVID-19 pandemic, including $180 million in foregone revenue to help businesses.

In March, Treasurer Nicole Manison drew down $300 million to spend at her discretion during the pandemic. Some of that money would presumably still be available, but how much is unknown.

The other problem for the Gunner Government is exactly how they will process the stimulus funding, having run into issues getting vouchers for its Home Improvement Scheme out the door. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Department of Business had approved less than 900 applications out of nearly 20,000, with many businesses saying the delays have been devastating for their companies.

Hospitality voucher scheme floated, but no government commitment

On Tuesday, Hospitality NT floated the idea of the government providing vouchers to encourage Territorians to spend more at local pubs, cafes and restaurants. CEO Alex Bruce said stimulus was needed after hospitality businesses only generated 10 to 25 per cent of normal sales last weekend, as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.

“We’re missing two million visitors to the Northern Territory, and without that content, we’re gonna continue to struggle,” Mr Bruce said.

“We definitely would need to have an economic multiply, it’s not just a free lunch, it might increase the amount that you spend not just in pubs, clubs, and restaurants but we’ll be looking into tourism operations [as well].”

Tourism is a major employer and contributor to the Northern Territory economy, with $2.2 billion in Gross Value Added (GVA) and 17,100 jobs, according to government data.

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