Australia’s battered tourism puts hope in China’s reopening

 CBT Holidays, a Sydney-based tour company, hopes the reopening of China’s borders will revive Australia’s tourism sector after a year of “surviving”.

The tour company lost access to its biggest market in 2020 when Australia and China both slammed their borders shut in response to the emergence of COVID-19. For much of 2021, CBT Holidays, which focuses on package tours to China, ceased operations altogether due to a lack of customers.

Despite Australia reopening to visitors in February 2022 and the efforts of many tour operators to pivot to domestic tourism, business stayed at a crawl for much of the sector last year.

While Australians remained locked out of China, Chinese arrivals to Australia dropped more than 95 percent from the 1.43 million visitors in 2019.

“Initially, we had some compensation from [the] Australia government and New South Wales government until probably one and a half years ago,” Eric Wong, product manager at CBT Holidays, told AL Jazeera.

“And [then] we just shut the business down.”

Now, as China reopens its borders from Sunday, potentially millions of Chinese, including tourists, students and business travellers, are expected to travel overseas to destinations such as Australia for the first time in three years.

“[It’s] good news, the Chinese border is open,” Jimmy L, the owner of CBT Holidays, told Al Jazeera, requesting he be referred to by his first name and an initial of his surname.

“More or less, the business will come… and then we can make the profit again.”

Still, he is cautious about how long it will take for business to bounce back, not least because of a lack of flights in and out of China and the prohibitive cost of fares.

Sun, the managing director of China Travel Service, another China-focused operator in Sydney, agreed.

There are currently only “a couple of flights” coming to Australia from China, carrying just a few hundred passengers, Sun told Al Jazeera, asking to be referred to by his surname.

While Chinese airlines are increasing flights to and from Australia, Australia’s national carrier, Qantas, has yet to announce the resumption of routes to China.

“I think that will change a lot… when the airlines increase the flight schedule… I think the people exchange between these two countries will be more and more frequent and then gradually go back to normal,” Sun said.

So far, there has been little action from the Australian government to encourage travel between China and Australia, despite Chinese visitors accounting for 12.3 billion Australian dollars ($8.5bn), or one-third, of all tourist spending before the pandemic.

On New Year’s Day, Australia announced that travellers from China, including Hong Kong and Macau, would have to provide a negative COVID-19 test result prior to travel amid concerns surging cases in China could result in new and more dangerous variants for Australia.

The Australian government announced the measures – which followed similar moves by countries including India, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – despite advice from the country’s chief medical officer that new restrictions on travel were not necessary.

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