East Kimberley hardest hit by state border hold-up

Peter de Kruijff and Jakeb WaddellThe Kimberley Echo
Fewer flights are coming in to Kununurra.
Camera IconFewer flights are coming in to Kununurra. Credit: Peter de Kruijff/Peter de Kruijff

The East Kimberley will be the hardest hit tourism region in WA after Victoria’s inability to control its community outbreaks of COVID-19 scuppered the possibility of the State’s hard border being removed by August 8.

The halving of Virgin Australia flights last week and biosecurity issues which have delayed Airnorth flights have added to the pain felt by businesses and residents.

The community is calling on the State and Federal governments to recognise the dire situation facing the region compared to the rest of WA and to provide support.

Business owners, community leaders and politicians are begging to not be forgotten as the rest of WA gets set to drown out their pleas when they celebrate the easing of coronavirus restrictions to recovery phase four on Saturday.

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Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley president Dave Menzel said it was absolutely the case the East Kimberley looked set to be the hardest hit of WA’s tourism regions.

“I think we’ve got to be realistic about our tourism season and by the time the next decision is made,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re expecting much in the way of a tourism dollar so we need to then consider how do we protect the businesses so they are here to operate next year.

“It’s certainly a case that there is going to be some significant support required to hibernate our tourism sector for 18 months.”

Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley president David Menzel.
Camera IconShire of Wyndham East Kimberley president David Menzel. Credit: Cally Dupe/The Kimberley Echo, Cally Dupe

Cr Menzel said about 80 per cent of tourists to the region came from outside of WA.

“In the East Kimberley it’s a bit different to the rest of WA,” he said. “You won’t get a camp site up the west coast now but I don’t think the people have the time or the inclination to make that big drive over to the East Kimberley.

“We really need a vaccine.”

The Kimberley has been accessible to the rest of WA for three weeks, but caravan parks are less than one quarter full, hotels are only booked out for next month’s school holidays and operators are desperately waiting for tourists to salvage part of the usual May to October dry season.

Families are finding it hard to secure flights to send children back to Perth for boarding school while similar troubles are being felt by the Patient Assisted Travel Scheme because of a reduction in flights.

About 37,000 Victorians visit the Kimberley every year and without them the impending loss of JobKeeper payments in September bodes as a dark date for businesses with many in the Kimberley praying they receive a share of $100,000 State grants being offered to struggling tourism operations.

East Kimberley Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Steve Sharp said the situation was “dire” for local businesses.

He said the likelihood of intrastate visitors was low due to reduced flights and a number of key attractions were financially unable to operate with many experiences closed from east of Mount Barnett.

Mr Sharp said travellers were also unable to cross the Northern Territory border through to Kununurra, which the region’s east was heavily reliant on.

“People will not spend time and money at a destination where key attractions are not even open,” he said.

“We are at a point now where it is so ridiculous we have to be prepared to take the risk and open the border, as well as the community understands the risk and possibility of having to shut again.

“There is a chance that it may already be too late to save some of these businesses, but we need to recover what we can.”

There has not been a quieter dry season to go visit the Bungle Bungle Range in Purnululu National Park for some time.
Camera IconThere has not been a quieter dry season to go visit the Bungle Bungle Range in Purnululu National Park for some time. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian, Stephen Scourfield

Australia’s North West Tourism chief executive Natasha Mahar said while she understood health concerns, travellers from outside of WA were an essential market for visitor attractions to survive.

She said operators in the East Kimberley were far more reliant on interstate visitors than Broome, with many financially unable to open up so far this season.

Mining and Pastoral MLC Ken Baston said the State needed to move forward while taking reasonable precautions to safeguard health.

“The effect of long-term unemployment, isolation from family and uncertainty will become a health crisis in itself,” he said.

“Opening the border will help minimise this fallout.”

Federal Member for Durack Melissa Price said she was sympathetic to the East Kimberley businesses doing it tough.

“I am in regular touch with them and would urge the McGowan Government to at least consider opening up the Northern Territory and South Australian borders to assist Kimberley business in what should be their peak tourism season right now,” she said.

People in the north appreciate the devastation COVID-19 could bring if it were to get into the region.

Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service chief operating officer Rob McPhee said high community transmission in the Eastern States was a major concern and a closed border was still necessary until remote areas were fully prepared.

“It is inevitable COVID will spread across populations at some point, so plans need to be in place so communities can quickly respond and deal with the virus quickly,” he said.

“We have to be practical about this, we can’t lock our State and country forever so we need to make sure all communities have the resources and skills to face it.

“We are doing a lot of work around that making sure there are clear processes and policies in place.”

Branko's Lookout at El Questro Wilderness Park.
Camera IconBranko's Lookout at El Questro Wilderness Park. Credit: Cally Dupe

Kununurra Visitor Centre general manager Colleen Quirk said she supported the State Government’s stance on the issue but noted the situation was not good.

Kalumburu Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Maria Lovison said a meeting would be held in the community today to discuss strategies for an outbreak and how the community could be opened to tourists.

She said there were still many issues in the community making it hard for residents to self-isolate at home.

“Issues in our homes in Kalumburu need to be addressed such as plumbing and blocked toilets, snakes are nesting in a house, blocked sinks, electrical problems,” she said.

“There is a government building program to stimulate the economy. Kalumburu community has been asking the minister for housing to build extra homes because of overcrowding issues.”

Tourism Minister Paul Papalia said the McGowan Government was “very conscious” of the difficult situation for tourism operators in the north.

“The State Government is providing $14.4m worth of direct support to tourism businesses around the State to assist with the impacts of COVID-19, through the Tourism Recovery Fund and the Tourism Business Survival Grants,” he said.

“I strongly encourage all tourism operators in the north of State who are facing difficult circumstances to apply for the fund.

“We are calling on the Federal Government to also come to the table with some direct grants support for the WA tourism industry.

“Some weeks ago they announced a billion dollars to support tourism – we have yet to see any of that direct support. The Federal Government could at least match the grants support the State has already provided.”

A Virgin Australia spokeswoman said it had updated its domestic schedule in line with customer demand.

“We’ll continue to review the schedule as demand in this region increases,” she said.

“We understand the vital link that our air services provide to communities in the Kimberley region to access essential goods and services and to support economic development, and we encourage our guests to book as early as possible to secure the best fares.

“Our discussions with the WA Government and the Federal Government are ongoing.”

An Airnorth spokesperson said it would be introducing a new weekend service between Perth and Kununurra from July 3 just in time for the school holidays.

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