By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN) — In April 2020, the then Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, which riled the Chinese leadership. China rapidly imposed sanctions on Australian imports, especially on the lucrative barley, wine and wheat trade. They also started looking for new iron ore suppliers, an export to China that has helped Australia’s economic boom in the past three decades.
Another area where the Australian economy benefited from China’s rise was the tourism and tertiary education sector. Before the pandemic, in 2018, according to Australian official statistics, there were 1.4 million Chinese visitors to Australia, bringing in over AUD 12 billion (USD 8.3 billion) to the Australian economy.
China was Australia’s major source of international visitors pre-pandemic, and with China abandoning its zero-Covid policy and opening its doors for its citizens to travel abroad from January 8, Australia’s tourism industry is rolling its red carpet to Chinese visitors. They have also protested to the Australian government for joining a handful of western nations in imposing pre-departure Covid testing on Chinese travellers.
The Australian media, which has been adopting a China-bashing slant to its news stories on China for the past three years, is now reporting about how local Chinese are looking forward to visits of their loved ones again to Australia’s shores, especially for family reunions during the Chinese Lunar New Year beginning January 22.
One such story by Australia’s multicultural broadcaster SBS had a heading ‘How Australia’s Covid-19 tests for Chinese travellers could delay Yolanda’s family reunion’ with the story focusing on the local Chinese community’s complaints about Australia’s Covid-testing policy, which they say is discriminatory because it targets only Chinese travellers from the mainland.
Yolanda Sun, a Melbourne resident of Chinese background, told SBS, referring to the Covid-testing requirement for Chinese travellers, “if they say it is a new variant, it is a worldwide variant, it has not originated from China, so I don’t think the new special restrictions should be made just because of the large number of travellers from China”.
Citing the lack of detailed information about the epidemiological situation in China, Health Minister Mark Butler says it is a “modest decision” to ensure that Australian health officials were able to track any emerging variants that could arise from China. “We just want to make sure we do that in a way that has the maximum information in a timely way that we need to protect Australians.”
But Australia itself is facing a new wave of Covid infection from a new variant even though most people go around without wearing masks.
In a letter dated 31 December, Australia’s chief medical officer explicitly advised the government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese not to introduce mandatory Covid-19 testing on travellers from China. Thus, a day before the measure was announced by the Health Minister, medical chief Paul Kelly told the Minister there was not a “sufficient public health rationale” for the move.
Adrian Esterman, the chair of epidemiology at the University of South Australia, has accused the government of making a political decision that is not based on public health measures. He points out that Australians who test positive for Covid-19 no longer have to isolate, and there are no testing requirements for travellers coming into the country (other than Chinese). “Our data in Australia is pretty inaccurate? How can we complain about countries like China?” he asked on SBS-TV.
Meanwhile, Australia’s national broadcaster ABC claims that Australia has kept much of its Covid-19 research and modelling secret, and they have asked, “why?”.
The report says that government sources say making this data transparent would be “damaging to our public discourse”. While, domestically, epidemiologists and mathematical modellers have been hard at work for three years producing models to guide the nation through the emergency period of the pandemic, the Australian governments “for unclear reasons are keeping their feet on the brake, … preventing much of that work from being published”, says the ABC.
Professor Rob Hyndman from Monash University, who is part of the team producing weekly forecasts of Covid case numbers for all states and territory governments, has told ABC that it is a “culture of secrecy around data that is damaging to our public discourse”.
In the meantime, Australian tourism authorities are not interested in the politics of Covid, and they are eager to welcome Chinese tourists to its shores, hoping to get back to the boom years of pre-Covid times, which was fuelled by high-spending Chinese tourists.
The pandemic, which shut down international travel, has also shut down the lifeblood of Far North Queensland’s economy, which has seen boom years in the two decades before the pandemic when millions of Chinese travellers, in particular, have visited the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree rainforest areas.
A report from Cairn’s ABC’s Christopher Testa said that tourism operators there are eagerly waiting to welcome back Chinese travellers. While international visitors have been treading in since Australia’s own borders were opened in February last year, it is not as big as when the Chinese used to flock there.
Visitation from China is 95 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, with the latest visitor survey to Australia recording just 62,120 arrivals from the country in the year to September.
“Right now, we’re still a long way before we get back to where we were,” the manager of Harry Sou’s restaurant in Cairns told ABC. “We had to totally change our business model. Luckily, we did have part of our business looking after the local (market) so we managed to keep that part going.”
Domestic travellers have helped prop up businesses over the past year, with the latest figures showing Australian holidaymakers spent a record $4 billion in Far North Queensland alone. But as more Australians start to head overseas, the industry expects domestic travel to “soften”.
Even as he looks forward to welcoming Chinese travellers, especially during the new year holiday period, Mark Olsen, CEO of Tourism Tropical North Queensland, is worried about prospects for 2023. “The signs of a turbulent 2023 are already really clear,” he says, pointing out that high jet-fuel prices, strong outbound visitation, and relatively slow international inbound arrivals “economic headwinds (are there), both in our international markets and here at home”.
No doubt, a high intake of Chinese tourists in the coming months would help to keep the once booming tourism industry, especially in Far North Queensland, thriving. But as a new Chinese migrant, Sandy Shen, argues, a “knee-jerk voter-pleasing policy decision, lacking scientific justification”, taken even against advice from its own medical chief, could derail an Australian tourism boom on the back of Chinese tourists again. [IDN-InDepthNews — 11 January 2023]
Photo: Beaches of Queensland’s Gold Coast during the pandemic. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne | INPS-IDN. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne | INPS-IDN
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