Backpackers Tokyo

In January 2020 Go West Tours had 132 staff on its payroll; as of this week the company has five employees and the managing director Terry Smit is back driving buses for the first time in nearly 15 years.

Key points:

  • Australia will reopen its borders to all double-vaccinated visa holders from February 21
  • Tourism operators hope international visitors will return, but say it will take some time to get back to pre-pandemic levels
  • With uncertain demand and few staff, operators say reviving their businesses will be tough

While Mr Smit welcomes the easing of border restrictions for international travellers, he says restarting his business after two years of "hibernation" will be extremely challenging.

"It is very good news that the border is being reopened again, but I fear that for me and other tourism operators the hardest months are to come," he told The Conversation Hour.

"We've got a long way to come back and, you know, I guess what we would say is that we will muddle through it the best way that we possibly can."

His biggest concern is coaxing staff back into tourism after being forced to find work in other industries during the pandemic.

Owner of Hidden Secrets Tours Fiona Sweetman is also nervous about the coming months.

"My biggest problem is trying to manage bookings with a very reduced, skeleton staff."

Waking business from hibernation costly

Since Go West Tours was founded in 2000 it has relied almost solely on international tourists, taking them to popular Victorian destinations including the Great Ocean Road and Phillip Island.

When Australia's border closed in 2020 and tours ceased, Mr Smit said the company's revenue went from 100 per cent to zero.

"When JobKeeper ended we had to say [to staff] go and get another job, we don't have any work for you," Mr Smit said.

Two years on Mr Smit believes every single person has found new employment, even he took a short-term position working in COVID testing and logistics.

When Mr Smit saw signs of international tourism slowly returning a few months ago, he sent an email to all the staff they had stood down in 2020 to see who wanted to come back.

"People were keen, but not until they had guaranteed work. The problem is I can't guarantee people work at the moment," he said.

He was also concerned about the up-front expenses involved in reviving his business, with everything from recruitment and training, to marketing and re-registering more than a dozen vehicles. It would all be up-front costs.

"There are effectively no tour guides who are match fit and registering vehicles is expensive," he said.

Demand will take time to return

Ms Sweetman's business runs several different walking tours in Melbourne, serving both international and domestic travellers.

"We are running some tours now, the border announcement hasn't changed the number of tours we are running," she said.

To stay afloat Ms Sweetman has had to take another full-time job, and is trying to manage tour bookings after hours.

She would like to put on an office manager but is concerned about demand, the cost of training someone and maintaining her long-term relationships with overseas travel agents.

"Exhaustion for owners is seriously high," she said.

"I want to give a job, but I can't afford to unless income is more reliable."

A smiling woman with a blue and black top points to a shop window while people look on.

Fiona Sweetman says it is difficult to know how busy her tour company will be this winter and spring.( Supplied: Hidden Secrets Tours )

Turning on the tap again

Prior to COVID, Go West Tours would run about 50 "mostly full" tours a week.

Even with the announcement that international tourists can return, next week they will only run three-to-five "half full" tours.

"It's going to be like turning a tap back on again for the first time in years," Mr Smit said.

"There is going to be a fair bit of spluttering, there is going to be a bit of rust and then we will get flowing again.

"But we've got no idea how long it will take to get back to what we were before."

Chief executive of the Victorian Tourism Industry Council Felicia Mariani said Mr Smit and Ms Sweetman are not alone.

"It has been a devastating time for these people," she said.

After mothballing a business, Ms Mariani said restarting trade won't be easy.

"They've got to find drivers again, they've got to retrain people and … we've got big holes to fill."

She is calling on federal and state governments to work together to promote Australia as a destination for international tourists and backpackers.

"We've got to get back in that game," she said.