Interview on ABC Radio Melbourne Mornings with Ali Moore
Ali Moore: Well with travel bans and flights canceled, it's no secret that Australia's tourism industry is having a tough time. So what can be done especially just when this country is starting to see an increase in the number of coronavirus cases? The Federal Tourism Minister is Simon Birmingham, he’s meeting today with his state and territory counterparts and he joins us now.
Simon Birmingham, good morning.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Ali.
Ali Moore: So what can be done?
Simon Birmingham: Well Ali, there's two tracks of action that we're looking at, because these are quite unprecedented times for our tourism industry with a 56 per cent downturn in international bookings experienced over the last month. And so what we're looking is on one track how do we stimulate as much demand for the sector as possible, and we do that by continuing and deepening our Holiday Here This Year campaign, which is really all about encouraging Australians to get out there, that if you want to support a small business, you want to help our tourism industry to stay on its two feet and to keep people in jobs, the best thing listeners can do, Australians can do, is to make a booking somewhere to- to take a long weekend, to take a school holiday trip, to take that long planned get away somewhere around Australia.
Obviously internationally, we're still targeting those areas where we think people are making decisions about travelling. We're down across all markets, but that doesn't mean there still aren't people we can't influence, and we want to make sure that those who might be seeking to take advantage of cheap flights, discounted holidays, especially out of markets like the United States and the United Kingdom, that we are in those markets, encouraging people to make Australia their destination of choice. But then more broadly, we recognise that small businesses are struggling. That they're suffering real cash flow problems in the tourism sector, and that's why the Government is developing a very targeted package of measures that will be finalised over the next little while and released to give that support to get businesses through these tough times.
Ali Moore: I’ll just ask you about that, because you've gone there, you're talking there about the bigger, broader stimulus package. Josh Frydenberg, the Treasurer, says it will have a B in front of it, it'll be worth billions. Time is clearly of the essence. How close are you to announcing that?
Simon Birmingham: The Government is very close. We are working as…
Ali Moore: What’s very closely? Will we get it today? Tomorrow? Monday?
Simon Birmingham: Well look, it's still a little away, but we are working to finalise it over the coming days and so on. I will be consulting with, of course, the state and territory tourism ministers today, as well as industry leaders, to hear directly from them their feedback around what will have the greatest benefit and impact in helping tourism businesses get through these tough times. And that will inform government deliberations as we finalise it over the next little while. We understand the urgency, but we are also determined to not repeat the mistakes of past stimulus packages, which were too broad, too wasteful, saw taxpayer dollars wasted unnecessarily on poorly constructed spending patterns. This time around we want to make sure that we target it to those who really need it and that we focus first and foremost on keeping businesses afloat and people in jobs.
Ali Moore: So we go back to tourism, Minister, and you talk about those who are still making plans - UK, US - and making Australia the destination of choice. What's your sales line? I mean, you've got a school closed in New South Wales, you've got person to person transfers of this disease, you've got absolutely no guarantees, and in fact you as a government are preparing for a pandemic. What's your sales line?
Simon Birmingham: I think firstly when it comes to COVID-19 or coronavirus, that Australia's circumstances, they’re not dissimilar to those faced by those sorts of similar countries. We will all now face the likelihood that this will spread and will present issues. But that Australia has, of course, a world-class health system that people can have confidence in that regard. And as our message has been clear all along, we want people to continue to go about their business as much as they possibly can.
Ali Moore: But do you really expect people from the UK and the US to jump on a plane for 24 hours and come here?
Simon Birmingham: Yes, there will be some, and there will be less than we would have otherwise expected. There's no doubt about that. I don't for a second pretend that these types of efforts will prevent a downturn. What we are trying to do is stop that downturn from being worse than it would otherwise be, and to make sure that those who will seek to take advantage of cheap airfares, discounted travel deals, et cetera, do see Australia as that destination of choice. Because in the end, they're spending, their dollars will be crucial to our tourism operators. There's also a long term aspect to this as well, that we know for many people, their intentions to travel, they're thinking about where they'll go in the future, is formed some six, nine, 12, 18 months into the future, if not even longer. And so we don't want to go dead in those key markets. In fact, at times of stress like this, we know that for some people, a little bit of escapism in terms of thinking about what they'll do when it's all over is equally crucial. And so that's about preparing to get our industry to bounce back as quickly as they can when these crisis times are behind us.
Ali Moore: A couple of devil's advocate questions, though. I mean, do you really want a whole lot of foreign tourists here who may well themselves end up sick, and therefore putting greater pressure on our health services, which if this takes a worst case scenario, is all going- already going to put enormous pressure on those services?
Simon Birmingham: We’re going to have far fewer visitors and tourists here regardless, but we are trying to make sure that we don’t completely lose our place in those key markets. Secondly, I'd say that those we expect to will make the decision to travel, to take the opportunistic chance of getting cheaper deals and so on are those who make the informed decision to travel and are more likely to be people not in the high risk categories of the elderly, or people with respiratory illnesses or the like but people who as we know, in the main for most people, the symptoms of coronavirus or COVID-19 are mild flu-like symptoms. Of course we take it all as seriously as we do because it spreads faster, and ultimately for those in the high risk categories, can have more severe complications.
Ali Moore: So, can I ask you, Minister, I know that we now have flights from China, Iran, and South Korea on the travel ban list. Are there any other- you've also got tighter monitoring of people arriving from Italy. Any other countries currently under consideration?
Simon Birmingham: Look, we are monitoring that on a daily basis and informed by advice from the health officials, the epidemiological studies around how it is spreading in other countries, and the risk of that spread to Australia. So for example, the number of arrivals from Korea into Australia is far greater than those from Italy which is why the decision was taken yesterday to have travel restrictions in relation to Korea, and enhanced screening in relation to Italy.
We'll keep looking at those measures, but there is also a tipping point where, if the virus spreads throughout the Australian community and it continues to pick up well then it becomes more about how you manage that spread, how you reduce the peak of it in Australia so that health systems can best cope with it whereas you won't get the same type of benefit as we had originally from travel restrictions that did look like for a period of time they may succeed in containing the spread in Australia. They certainly did in relation to China, but unfortunately in other parts of the world they didn't apply the same types of travel restrictions as Australia did, it did spread, and ultimately that's now caught up with us in Australia.
Ali Moore: And of course it always was going to catch up with us. Minister, can I ask a question about travel insurance which is causing consternation for huge numbers of people. I've got a number of calls and texts just while you've been talking to us. Are you involved at all, or will you get involved at all in the conditions under which travel insurance doesn't cover people? Because the sorts of rules that companies are putting in place seem pretty extraordinary. I mean, I know one company that's not paying for any coronavirus claims including cancellation after 21 January which was before the WHO had declared it to be a major issue. And of course if people can cancel and get their money back, they'll rebook which is good for the travel industry.
Simon Birmingham: Look, I would certainly encourage people who think they are being unfairly treated in relation to their travel insurance to get in touch with the ACCC, or the Consumer Affairs Authorities, we’ll certainly be asking those authorities to put a priority on looking at unfair practices in the travel insurance industry. It is up to travel insurers as to how they look at matters prospectively from here, in terms of taking new booking or new policies from individuals. But I think you raise a very fair point there in relation to how they might be treating individuals prior to significant awareness about this event.
Ali Moore: Indeed, and does the government have a view on that- at what point you can say significant awareness can be called that people did know about it?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think that travel insurance policies should be transparent and they should be simple for individuals to navigate. And in relation to coronavirus and COVID-19 people would reasonably have not expected this to be an impact on their travel decisions, certainly not prior to Australia at least in taking our decisions around travel restrictions in relation to- with countries like China, or the WHO determination. There are some clear benchmark decision points either made by the WHO or made by the Australian Government that changed circumstances in terms of the awareness of Australians.
Ali Moore: Interesting point, I'd be delighted to have that conversation with the insurance industry, which hopefully we will in the not too distant future. Thank you very much for joining us, Minister.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Ali. My pleasure.
Ali Moore: Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Simon Birmingham there.