The state Labor Opposition made its presence known in the Limestone Coast, with Shadow Tourism Minister Zoe Bettison and Clare Scriven MLC meeting with tourism providers in the region last week. The Limestone Coast Local Government Association’s (LCLGA) destination development manager Biddie Shearing was among those in attendance and said the group’s meeting in Mount Gambier gave the local industry a chance to share its perspective.
It was also a chance to say what did and did not work in 2020 in terms of government support for a sector crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, but Ms Shearing said the Labor Party had heard the concerns of tourism providers before. Her comments came after news emerged that occupancy rates in regional South Australia in the first quarter of 2021 were the best quarter ever recorded, but before the release of data that shows the Limestone Coast’s tourism expenditure is almost at pre-COVID-19 levels.
Ms Shearing told The SE Voice: “There’s still a lot of hurt in our region.” In a statement, South Australian Premier and Tourism Minister Steven Marshall said regional tourism is going “gangbusters at the moment” as South Australians chose to explore their own backyard.
According to the State Government, occupancy rates in regional South Australia during the first quarter of 2021 were the best on record. An unprecedented 122,500 room nights occupied and $19.4m in takings was recorded in April. “In the Limestone Coast, May 2021 reached a higher occupancy than in May 2019 – with an average occupancy of 55% in May 2021 compared to 47% in the same month pre-pandemic in 2019,” Mr Marshall told The SE Voice.
However, the State Government Budget papers agree that this positive trend has not been uniform for regional providers, particularly those that were reliant on international tourism pre-COVID-19. While intrastate travel is at an all-time high, the South Australian visitor economy is experiencing the most severe contraction on record.
Total expenditure in the year to December 2020 was $4.7b, down from the year to December 2019 result of $8.1b. Regional visitor expenditure declined from $3.55b in 2019 to $2.6b in 2020. Ms Shearing said some Limestone Coast accommodation providers were experiencing great occupancy levels, while others were not and faced “huge amounts of administration” with cancellations, refunding and the “toing and froing” of bookings due to internal border closures.
“There are some great patches, but we have still got a journey,” Ms Shearing said. About 40,500 people were employed in the industry pre-COVID-19, with regional South Australia accounting for around one third of these. It is unclear how many South Australians remain employed in tourism currently, but data for the last financial year shows an increase in regional tourism employment of 6% to June 2020.
However, the South Australian Tourism Commission (SATC) noted several limitations in this data set caused by COVID-19, including the timing of the release reflecting only two months of the initial COVID-19 response to June 2020.
Tourism spending war of words
As tourism operators continue to be impacted by the ever-changing COVID-19 landscape, the Labor Party has taken aim at a $24m decrease to the state tourism portfolio over the next four years, announced as part of this year’s State Budget.
In addition, an immediate cut of $10m is being made to tourism marketing, although the Marshall government says an extra $10m per year will be given to it over three years from 2020-21 to 2022-23 from a separate budget stream.
Ms Bettison said 2020 had been a roller coaster for South Australia’s small tourism businesses. “What you’re looking at here is a government that is not backing tourism,” she said. “The competition is going to be intense. Once those borders open up, people are going to be going into the international market. “But also, when Australians are more confident to travel around, we want to make sure we’re getting our fare share of that travel.”
The Shadow Tourism Minister added: “My big issue is with the cuts to the Budget, the cuts to tourism, is there’s a belief the job has been done, but it has not – there’s a long way to go.” Clare Scriven MLC, who holds the Shadow portfolio for Industry and Skills, added, “a better awareness and commitment of resources to the Limestone Coast would be very welcome.” “There were no new announcements for the Limestone Coast (in the State Budget 2021-22) … so I think that certainly people really question what the current government sees as the future for our region,” Ms Scriven said.
Premier Marshall told The SE Voice any suggestion that regional tourism is not being supported by his government “is completely false,” drawing attention to several measures the state had implemented. He said three quarters of a million dollars had been invested by the state in the Limestone Coast through the Tourism Industry Development Fund (TIDF) over two years.
The state government mainly attributed the decrease in the state tourism budget over four years to the end of time-limited initiatives, like the TIDF which provides $10m per annum from 2020-21 to 2021-22, which wrap up before 2024-25. “The Labor Party can continue to talk down our state and what we have on offer,” Mr Marshall said.
“However, I am doing everything in my power to make South Australia a destination that people will continue to come back to, time and time again and to create as many local jobs in the process Mr Marshall added his government had increased regional event funding by $1m, supporting events like Coonawarra Cabernet Celebrations and Pines Enduro, and new events as part of the 2021-22 round of funding to be announced this month.
He said the government would also be making “significant announcements” for The Bend in the coming months, and drew attention to Mount Gambier’s ‘Digital Garden’ drawing some 10,000 visitors from across the state to the city, as part of Illuminate Adelaide.
This also comes off the back of four rounds of the Great State Voucher campaign, providing vouchers of $100 for metropolitan accommodation and half as much for suburban and regional accommodation. Furthermore, both Mr Marshall and the Labor Ministers’ comments to The SE Voice came before the release of summary data from Tourism Research Australia and the South Australian Tourism Commission (SATC) for regional Australia and regional SA, which shows the Limestone Coast’s tourism sector is performing extraordinarily well.
According to the SATC, in the year ending March 2021, Limestone Coast tourism expenditure was $418m, representing 99% of pre-COVID-19 performance. In the year ending December 2019, tourism expenditure was $421m. “Summary data for regional Australia and regional South Australia shows that South Australia is performing more strongly compared to the total result for regional Australia,” the SATC writes in an online statement. “This is further evidenced by even more recent accommodation data.”
It added: “Combined with the increasing data around workforce demand, and the high numbers of job vacancies being listed in regions, from an employment perspective, the issue is currently supply of an adequate workforce rather than lack of employment opportunities.”