Tourism operators at WA's Ningaloo Reef are struggling without international visitors. Image by PR HANDOUT IMAGE PHOTO

Tourism and Leisure

Tough times for tourism in pandemic bubble

2020-07-17 08:34:51

Hand sanitiser? Check. Mask? Check. Ready to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After arriving at Perth Airport, I notice markings on the floor and seats encouraging people to remain physically distanced, but no one seems to enforce the rules.

It is easy to fall back into regular practices in a state like WA, where the number of confirmed coronavirus cases is at 644 and restrictions have been relaxed significantly.

No one wants to be complacent, but locals are obviously relieved to see no evidence of community transmission like the recent outbreaks on the east coast.

I’m flying to Learmonth Airport in Western Australia’s mid-north, en route to the world heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef.

Qantas is offering free disposable masks, but some travellers barely look at the pile as they board the plane and stand sandwiched together until they can take their respective seats.

A flight attendant then offers passengers some hand sanitiser, and that appears to be the extent of the hygiene offerings.

Upon my arrival at Ningaloo, I immediately spot hand sanitiser and signs about hygiene at my accommodation – an eco-friendly, safari beach camp.

During my stay I wander down to the pristine and spectacular beach of Turquoise Bay where you can snorkel with fish, turtles and other wildlife in the coral reef.

Unsurprisingly, it is packed with tourists during the school holidays.

Everything feels relatively normal in WA and if it weren’t for news and social media reminders of the global pandemic, you could easily live inside your own little bubble in this coastal paradise.

Of course, despite WA being mostly sheltered from coronavirus, there are obvious concerns linked to the pandemic.

Unemployment is high, many are lamenting their inability to travel overseas or interstate, and some businesses are struggling.

Ningaloo tour guides and hospitality workers tell me they are not at capacity, and are hoping more locals will travel within the state in the coming months.

But there are also overseas travellers hogging bookings, hoping Australia will reopen its international borders soon, and waiting until the last minute to cancel.

Live Ningaloo co-founder Sonia Beckwith says she has been calling guests to cancel bookings because her business, which includes boat trips to snorkel with whale sharks, will otherwise struggle to survive.

“We can’t afford for people to hold onto their bookings and cancel last-minute because I can’t refill the space,” she told AAP.

Ms Beckwith says usually about one-third of guests are from overseas, with most of the rest from NSW and Victoria.

WA people normally make up about 17 per cent of guests.

“You can’t survive on that, not for long,” she said.

Premier Mark McGowan has been consistent with his “conservative approach” and Ms Beckwith does not expect the interstate border to reopen before September.

Only about half of current tours are fully booked, she says, and on some days they are empty.

It’s a massive drop considering the business usually has up to 140 people on the waiting list every day of the July school holidays.

The state government continues to encourage people to “Wander out Yonder” by enjoying a staycation in Perth or seeking new experiences in WA.

If you do have the time and money to travel locally, make sure you pack some hand sanitiser – it appears to be the most trusted travel companion during the pandemic.

The writer travelled as a guest of Journey Beyond.