With the oh, so welcome news of Queensland reopening its borders to Victoria and all of New South Wales from December 1, a COVID-vaccination imminent and confidence and demand rising for domestic travel, Graham ‘Skroo’ Turner spoke to ABC’s Fran Kelly today on Radio National Breakfast about fresh optimism for travel in 2021.
The Flight Centre Travel Group head honcho has been a regular on ABC Radio National Breakfast throughout the pandemic and not surprisingly has had to face a barrage of tough questions every time he’s been on.
Today was a little different, with an opportunity for Queensland’s very own success story to share some renewed optimism for the travel industry thanks to his home state finally reopening to all of New South Wales and Victoria as well as the positive news of a COVID-vaccine getting closer to being rolled out.
Here’s what he had to say in response to questions from Fran Kelly on a number of pertinent topics that affect everyone in the travel industry.
Is the Queensland border decision too late to save some businesses and jobs reliant on tourism?
It certainly will be too late for some people. But we can’t be too worried about that. The main thing is, I think, that things stay open. That we don’t open and shut all the time. That’s really been one of the issues.
So let’s hope we can stay open now, as a country, I think it’s really important.
How worried are you that states and territories can close their borders when they want?
It is a bit of a worry. I mean, it’s that lack of certainty for business. Whether you’re in travel, tourism, airlines or airports, it’s very hard to plan.
If there’s a very small hotspot like Adelaide had, and things shut down again. I think the Premiers will come to the conclusion that it’s just not viable to do this.
So they’ve done a pretty good job in keeping the numbers down. But I think everyone accepts, it’s about containment and suppression, it’s not about elimination.
We’ve just got to be able to live with the virus and treat small areas of hotspots as they come up. I think the New South Wales example, went pretty well in the way they’ve done it, without shutting the state down. And I think that’ll probably be the standard approach.
Was there a rush for bookings yesterday after the announcement?
As soon as things open, particularly domestically, I think people are getting reasonably confident that things will tend to stay open now. At least the most of the major routes.
So we had a huge rush yesterday. I think the Melbourne one will be really important today. I was talking to Alan Joyce the other day. And I think he said, “When the Jetstar released their February flights, which were great value, they had 200,000 bookings within a few hours.” And that’s the way people will go.
People are just desperate to travel to see friends, as well as to travel for leisure and business.
Will about the tourism businesses be able and ready to cater for the increased demand?
There will be some. And some of the smaller tourist operators will really struggle to survive. Because it’s been such a long period and they’ve been living really off Job Keeper.
And also there will be a lot of local bookings over the December, January period. So interstate people will have trouble getting bookings, in some of the more popular Queensland spots, for example. So there will be some issues.
But we’re just happy that the borders are opening. And I think everyone in our industry feels the same way.
What about your business? How quickly are you bringing people on, reemploying some of these staff, is that the plan?
We’re still in survival mode. I mean, we’ve just raised another 400 million last week. And it will take time. But opening up domestic is going to be very important to us.
As far as our people go, we’ve still got quite a few people. Although we had to basically stand down nearly 70% of our staff in Australia, we’ve still got quite a few people on, two or three days a week.
And so we’ll be able to bring them back very quickly. And there are still quite a few people stood down, that we’ll be able to bring back, as the demand comes back.
Call centres such as airlines are experiencing large delays, is that an issue for FCTG?
It is. And just a little thing like Adelaide shutting down to some of the states, means our people have to go into refund mode again. And that’s not something we’re used to.
So it just means that it does block things up a bit. But we’re pretty confident we’ve got the capacity to handle whatever will come domestically.
How are the refunds going? Have customers all got their money back?
Initially, we had some problems with our refunds. But in Australia alone, we’ve refunded about $1.1 billion already. And the only things that will be holding it up now, is whether we’ve got the refund from the airline or the tour operator.
So we’re pretty confident. But there’ll still be some hiccups.
I’ve been at the front line of this to a certain extent because I’ve been getting complaints, up until a few months ago. But it’s a very odd problem that we have now, and generally, it relates to us not having the funds from the operator yet.
We’re also hearing of price gouging from some domestic operators to places like Queensland because of demand. Are you seeing that?
Yes, there’s an element of that. But bear in mind that we’re coming into high season in December and January, so the prices have always been somewhat higher. And you’ve got to remember, particularly with Virgin and Qantas, that they’ve been operating a skeleton schedule. And it’s a very expensive thing to run.
I’m pretty confident that the prices will be reasonably back to normal, certainly after this peak period and that there will be good value for people then.
Do you think travel is going to remain subdued until there is a vaccine and everyone has actually got the vaccine?
I certainly I think there’ll be a boom in domestic over the next six months, as long as the borders stay open. But yes, international travel will rely, to a certain extent, on people being vaccinated. I think there’ll probably be some bilateral arrangements before that. I hope there is.
What about travel bubbles with other countries that are almost COVID-free?
Well, that would make sense. And New Zealand really needs Australian tourism, for example, as well as business flights. I’ll be very surprised if they don’t open up soon. And then there are some other countries that are very low risk, so probably pre-vaccination, yes.
What did you make of Alan Joyce, flagging the prospect of international travellers having to show they’d been vaccinated before they board a Qantas international flight?
I think it’s just common sense that there’ll probably be a requirement to be vaccinated, just as it is now if you’re going to somewhere with yellow fever. You need that, so you can get back into the country.
By the time that international travel is fully back, I think COVID-19 is going to be around with us, for some time. And I think the vaccination is a way to keep it under suppression. And to make sure that countries are happy to take us and people come back without quarantining. So I think there’s a reasonable case for that.
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