ANU: Borders are open, but visitors won’t flock back

Australia is deluding itself if it thinks migrants will just return to the country after the poor treatment of people from overseas over the last few years.

Australia is welcoming fully vaccinated visa holders from 21 February, but experts from The Australian National University (ANU) say that it will take more than open borders to attract overseas visitors back to our shores.

A handsome Hemsworth and a fundamental shift in our long-term attitudes toward migrants may be the key to encouraging people to prioritise travel down under, as uncertainty around COVID-19 restrictions persists.

In announcing the reopening, the Federal Government said it was a boost for the tourism industry, which has struggled since borders closed in March 2020. The launch of a $40 million campaign from Tourism Australia followed shortly afterwards.

The 30 second ‘Don’t go small. Go Australia,’ advertisement is being rolled out internationally, including in prominent locations like Times Square in New York and Piccadilly Circus in London.

Dr Andrew Hughes from the ANU College of Business and Economics has doubts as to whether the campaign will succeed in attracting holidaymakers.

“No celebrities is unusual and really weird for an international market,” Hughes says. “They could have used Chris Hemsworth again. He’s expensive but would have been worth the cash.”

In the past, Tourism Australia ads have been memorable because of their use of catchphrases and famous actors. The ‘Don’t go small’ campaign features neither, focusing instead on sweeping landscape shots.

“The ad is good to look at, but it’s not going to create demand to visit Australia,” Hughes says. “It’s meant to be a feast for your eyes, but it’s not targeting anyone.”

Aside from complementing the international border reopening, Hughes says the timing of the ad is less than ideal.

“The campaign has come at the wrong time of the year. We’re going into winter while the northern hemisphere is going into summer. I worry the timing of the release has been for political purposes. It seems rushed.”

Instead of aiming for mass appeal but reaching nobody in particular, Hughes says Tourism Australia should have targeted social media savvy people in their late teens and early twenties instead.

“Young people will create shareable content. They’re going to run thousands of ads for you. They have the time and they will be more open to risk taking.”

That openness to risk is something that Hughes says will have a big influence on travellers’ decision- making. Australia’s record of snap lockdowns and inconsistent interstate border rules may discourage tourists.

For many, the possibility of becoming stuck in a lockdown could be more of a deterrent to travelling than the risk of catching COVID.

“It’s a fear in the back of people’s minds that you can’t downplay right now,” Hughes says.

The recent controversy around tennis player Novak Djokovic’s deportation may also be playing on the minds of potential visitors.

“People are fearful of getting here, finding they don’t have the right papers and having to leave,” Hughes says. “They think ‘if it happened to a world famous tennis player, it could happen to me’.”

But, it is not only tourists put off by Australia’s treatment of overseas travellers. It will take more than a Hollywood heartthrob to patch up the country’s deep seated issues with race.

Dr Liz Allen from the ANU Centre for Social Research Methods thinks that our nation’s attitude toward migrants is stopping people from wanting to call Australia home.

“Australia is deluding itself if it thinks migrants will just return to the country after the poor treatment of people from overseas over the last few years,” Allen says.

With its borders closed for almost two years, Australia has experienced a big demographic shock. The combination of a rapidly ageing population, a less diverse workforce and a record low fertility rate have set the country back.

Allen expects the population to rebound slowly over a number of years. Without new migrants to help fill jobs, Australians may see their economic wellbeing negatively impacted, with living standards going backwards.

“COVID has granted a natural popular experiment demonstrating that migrants don’t inflate house prices, nor do they suppress wages, and migrants certainly don’t steal local jobs,” Allen says.

“Migrants keep the Australian economy afloat. Migrants staff our hospitals, feed us, build our homes and lay the infrastructure for the future.”

Allen says Australia still has what she calls “white Australia hang ups,” and that the Government failed to enact protections to support migrants during the pandemic.

“Australia will miss out on the best and brightest the world has to offer because of its insular nativist approach to the pandemic . In times of fear, people tend to want to protect their own and fear the other – migrants bear the brunt of this,” she says.

“There are so many alternative options to Australia for overseas migrants, and they will look to welcoming places to establish new lives.”

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