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Australia wildfires fan fears of ‘detrimental’ impact to tourism industry

Powerful images tell the story of Australia’s wildfire devastation and those living with it
WATCH: Powerful images tell the story of Australia's wildfire devastation and those living with it.

Parts of Australia’s tourism industry are worried its reputation is going up in smoke.

Wildfires have ravaged much of the country since September, so far devouring more than eight million hectares of land and leaving 25 people dead and thousands homeless.

The country’s clean and safe image has been diluted by smoke and flames. Apocalyptic images of kangaroos escaping flames and dehydrated koalas being pulled from charred trees have frequently appeared on social media streams and newscasts.

READ MORE: Canadian narrowly escapes Australia’s firestorm with family

While there is no definitive national data yet, there are rising fears that this season’s bushfires will deal a significant blow to the tourism economy.

In recent days, consumer confidence in the Australian economy slipped 1.7 per cent — its lowest level in four years — according to ANZ analysts.

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The hotel industry in Australia’s biggest city, Sydney, is also seeing the effects, with a 10 per cent drop in occupancy rates in December.

Tourists opted to go to Brisbane and Melbourne instead, which have been relatively unaffected by the fires, according to the Accommodation Association of Australia.

“While we have seen some impact on forward bookings, our international visitors book many months ahead of time, so we will have a clearer picture of the impact then,” said Dean Long, the association’s chief executive.

Bushfires in Australia: What ignited the deadly crisis
Bushfires in Australia: What ignited the deadly crisis

Tourism is crucial to Australia’s economy.

It accounts for more than three per cent of the country’s annual GDP. And it’s only going up: in 2018, the industry was worth A$57.3 billion, seven per cent higher than in 2017, according to government data.

Tourism employs nearly 650,000 Australians, which works out to about one in every 19 citizens. More than nine million international visitors travelled there in 2018 alone.

What the world is seeing of Australia at this particular moment is not all-encompassing of the country, according to Lori Pennington, a professor and director of Tourism Crisis Management Initiative at the University of Florida.

It’s up to destination management — Tourism Australia — to “manage the message,” she said.

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READ MORE: Australia wildfire smoke turns sky orange in NZ, seen in parts of South America

“When places see a dip in visitor numbers, it’s really about a lack of awareness,” she told Global News via phone. “People will adjust their plans because they aren’t necessarily spending the time to get to know the real story, they just see what they’re getting through their feed, so they’ll make a judgment based on that.”

To mitigate the wildfire’s effects on tourism, Pennington said it’s crucial Tourism Australia and independent tourism companies make clear which places are still safe to visit.

“When you see Australia in the pictures, you’re not aware geographically of where the fires are burning. Dots on a map along the coast isn’t a good idea of impact for a tourist,” she said.

“It’s up to the tourism industry to really tease that out and give a good representation of what’s going on.”

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Tourism Australia released a statement about the ongoing situation on Jan. 3, noting that many areas are unaffected and that “most tourism businesses are still open.”

The government body also recently opted to pull an ad campaign set for a U.K. audience showing singer Kylie Minogue sunbathing on a crystal-clear beach. A spokesperson called the timing of the campaign “unfortunate.”

The ecological impact of the Australian wildfires
The ecological impact of the Australian wildfires

Long believes the bushfires have had a “detrimental” effect on “Australia’s brand appeal.” However, he says there’s still so much the country has to offer that is being missed.

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“(There are) many areas of this great country still open and unaffected,” he told Global News via email, naming hotspots like Perth, the Gold Coast and the Great Barrier Reef.

“We would encourage people to continue to journey and book travel.”

It is still safe for Canadians to travel to Australia. The latest from Global Affairs Canada acknowledges the ongoing bushfires but says Canadians can take “normal security precautions” while visiting.

READ MORE: Canada prepared to provide further assistance to Australia if needed, says minister

“We would encourage all travellers coming to Australia to seek the most up-to-date information prior to departure and remain informed about changing conditions whilst on the ground,” Tourism Australia said in its statement.

Pennington isn’t convinced of the long-term effects on tourism. She compared the situation to hurricane season in Florida and other parts of the United States.

“We might’ve had a huge one here this season, so tourists might question the destination, they might watch the weather forecast, but so long as people have the information to make their decisions, the impacts won’t be as great.”

— With files from Reuters