A COVID-19 scare in outback Queensland that lasted just 48 hours has cost tourism operators hundreds of thousands of dollars in cancellations.
- Longreach is COVID-19-free and open for business after a flight attendant later found to have the virus sparked panic
- The main street was so quiet it was “like a bomb went off”, one local says
- Tourism experts say the legacy of even a percieved COVID-19 risk takes time to disappear
Longreach — which has not had a case of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic — is open for business and attempting to return to its bumper tourism trade after a flight attendant found to have COVID-19 sparked panic.
Local tour operator Alan “Smithy” Smith said he had lost up to $500,000 worth of business from cancellations and the lingering drop-off in bookings.
“Longreach probably had the quietest main street any of us had seen for a long time last Friday and what that does is, of course, all of the grey nomads clear out, the locals don’t go out and it’s like a bomb went off.”
Richard Kinnon — who runs Outback Pioneer experiences — went from having a “mile long” waiting list to fielding cancellation calls worth upwards of $40,000.
“Instantly we saw the impact, our phones rang straight away with cancellations and panic set in like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.
“Just overnight, you have $30,000-$40,000 taken off you in five hours. You’ve got to give it back.”
Bouncing back after scare
It took two days for health authorities to reveal there was never a risk to the outback, because the flight attendant had caught the virus after the flights, when she illegally drove an infected Sydney man into Queensland.
“It put us on the map, media-wise, for all of the wrong reasons. Bad news travels fast and good news takes a bit longer,” Mr Smith said.
Surrounding towns of Tambo and Blackall, correspondingly reported huge spikes in tourists who had bypassed Longreach.
Longreach Mayor Tony Rayner said a convoy of caravans and tourists made a “very rapid” exit from the town as Queensland Health set up its testing stations.
“People were concerned that there may have been COVID-19 around the region, but clearly there isn’t and we need to rebuild the numbers through good advertising that we’re open for business,” he said.
Queensland Tourism Industry Council CEO Daniel Gschwind said that having a destination name associated with a COVID-19 scare was “not helpful, to put it lightly” and might last “a little while”.
“The outback has experienced now, for the first time perhaps during [COVID-19], what many other destinations have had, which is the loss of bookings in response to a real or perceived situation,” he said.
However, local operators said the false alarm made them more resilient and the town was already beginning to bounce back.
“Now we can put out the good story, that Longreach was 100 per cent safe. So, put your mind at ease, come to the outback, because we’re serious about keeping you safe.”
Thousands of punters are expected to attend the Birdsville Races in south-west Queensland in September, with the event’s final block of tickets released for sale yesterday.