The Morrison government is considering offering targeted financial assistance to the tourism industry because international travel is likely to remain restricted for up to a year, the minister responsible for the sector has signalled.
Dan Tehan, whose portfolio includes trade as well as tourism, said Australia was “very unlikely to see international tourism for the next nine to 12 months” so the part of the sector dependent on arrivals from abroad “remains in a state where it is very difficult for them to succeed economically”.
“I’ve already been engaging heavily with the tourism industry to listen to their concerns and also to get thoughts, ideas and feedback from them as to how the government may be able to assist them while we wait for international tourism to come back online,” Tehan told Guardian Australia and other media outlets in a group interview.
The approach to tourism contrasts with comments by the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, that the government is not considering extending wage subsidies in the hospitality sector.
In the wide-ranging interview, which also touched on his attempts to contact China’s new commerce minister for dialogue about resolving trade tensions, Tehan confirmed he was consulting on the shape of a potential tourism support package.
The size of any such assistance remains unclear, but the discussions are taking place amid fears among tourism operators about the scheduled end of the jobkeeper wage subsidy at the end of March and the prospect of extended border closures. Labor has also called for targeted support to continue to hard-hit sectors.
Tehan said while he had heard from the sector that it had been a strong summer for domestic tourism, it remained “a very challenging time” for international tourism.
He said any decisions would be driven by “economic data that continues to come in around the economic impact on our tourism sector of the pandemic”.
“I’ll continue to have those discussions, engage with the sector and look to see whether there is specific or targeted support that could be provided or is needed,” he said.
Tehan said one of the key issues was how to target assistance to parts of the sector that were particularly exposed to international tourism.
He had asked the sector to provide suggestions for “how you can in any way sort of partition this from the relatively strong growth that we’ve seen with regard to domestic tourism”.
When asked this week about continued assistance for the tourism sector beyond March, Scott Morrison did not rule it out but said it was “too early to make those calls”. The prime minister expressed a general view on Thursday that “taxpayers’ money can’t be used endlessly to run the Australian economy”.
On Friday, Frydenberg reportedly rejected calls from the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association to extend jobkeeper wage subsidies in the hospitality sector when the rest of the program expires on 31 March.
In a letter, first reported in the Australian, Frydenberg said the government recognised “the challenges faced by the accommodation and food services industry”.
“However, given the unprecedented levels of support announced by the commonwealth and state and territory governments, I consider that existing policy settings will continue to support a strong economic recovery and we are not contemplating a ‘Hospokeeper’ package at this time.”
Tehan said there was some hope of travel bubbles with New Zealand, Pacific countries and Singapore “if they’re able to continue to successfully deal with the pandemic”, but “the most likely scenario is that we’re probably nine to 12 months away from international tourism as we know it restarting”.
He said the government would take the advice of its medical experts as to whether a successful rollout of vaccines globally could allow the border to reopen to international tourists earlier, especially for those who had been vaccinated.
Tehan, who was appointed to the trade, tourism and investment portfolio in late December, said he had written to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Wentao, last week to start a discussion on the ongoing trade tensions.
Wang, a former governor of the agriculture-producing Heilongjiang province, was also appointed to the Chinese commerce ministry role last month.
Tehan said he would be “patient” and play the “long game” in seeking to resolve tensions with Australia’s largest trading partner. Australian ministers last year reported being unable to secure phone calls with their Chinese counterparts, and dozens of ships with Australian coal on board remain stranded off the coast of China.
“My hope is that with the appointment of a new minister in China at the same time as my appointment, that we will be able … to get a dialogue in the relationship happening again,” Tehan said.
“And I’ve strongly reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to our trade and economic relationship with China.”