Cairns feels the pinch as coronavirus turns city into a tourist ghost town
The new Pachamama rooftop bar in Cairns is usually pumping from Friday night through to Sunday. Two months ago there was a throng of young tourists draped on banana lounges around the pool or dancing to the house beats of DJ duo Mark and Anya.
But on Sunday, it was deserted.
The tourists are gone and just a couple of families are taking advantage of the locals’ Sunday special of sangria jugs as their children swim in the pool.
Mark and Anya spin decks to an empty dance floor.
The combined economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak and the bushfires have kept visitors away from Australia and nowhere is this more acutely felt than north Queensland.
The wet season from January has traditionally been a low season for the Queensland tourism industry in the far north, so the growing Chinese market has been a much-needed boost for a region in recent years.
However, since Chinese New Year this year, Chinese tourist numbers have dried up because of cancelled inbound flights from China.
It’s been a tough blow for region already suffering a struggling market since last year’s floods, the summer’s bushfires and the international attention on coral bleaching.
Down the road from the Bailey Hotel on the usually bustling Cairns Esplanade, travel agent Simon, who did not want his surname used, is waiting for walk-ins at the travel agency he has worked in for the last five years.
“Without a doubt everyone is feeling the pinch of the coronavirus, 100%,” he said. “I don’t have any figures but just from conversations with people they are all suffering, a lot of suppliers are having problems.
“You just have to look at the number of specials businesses are offering at the moment, that tells you straight away numbers are down and that people are struggling. Who needs to offer a discount if they are doing OK? A lot of companies are doing that and that rings alarm bells for me.
“Also, a lot of the hotels here are doing it tough, I know of one large hotel that running at under 10% occupancy.
“This is normally a quiet time of year, but it’s not normally this quiet.”
However, Simon believes the media is unfairly portraying the situation.
“Yes the impacts of the coronavirus have been big, but what is it? It’s just a bad flu.
“Let’s get a bit of balance in the conversation.”
Two blocks from the Esplanade, in Cairns city centre, Jess Miller, a barista, cleans and restocks while waiting for customers. Miller said she had never seen business so bad and that many hospitality businesses were struggling.
“I know of couple cafes that are on the verge of closing. A lot of my friends in hospitality can’t find enough work.
“I was working at a cafe at the airport six weeks ago, but when all the flights from China were cancelled during Chinese New Year, the work just dried up.
“I didn’t realise how important the Chinese tourists were until they stopped coming because of coronavirus.”
One of those tourists, Chinese national Lisa Liu, an interpreter from Beijing, has been holidaying in Australia for the last two months with her husband and two young children.
“We originally only came to Australia for a month, but then with the outbreak we decided to stay an extra month.
“There was no point going home as the schools are all closed and we would be stuck at home under quarantine – the kids would have driven us crazy so we continued our vacation here instead.
“From an individual point of view this has been great for us, no big crowds and very quiet, but it must be very hard for the local businesses.
“With many signs in Chinese around town, and Chinese menus, it’s obvious it is a popular place for Chinese people, but there are hardly any Chinese tourists here right now.”
Liu said they had encountered some negative responses from people during their visit.
“We walked into a shop and two ladies reacted badly to my children, because they were Chinese thinking they would catch the virus, but the virus is everywhere now.”
Lui said in Beijing people were working together as a community to overcome the crisis.
“Everyone is helping each other, and when we return people will help us to deal with this, it’s really important that we all work together to get through this.”
The chief executive of the region’s industry peak body Tourism Tropical North Queensland, Mark Olsen, said the Cairns economy was projected to have suffered a $300m loss of revenue for the first quarter of this year due to bushfires and coronavirus.
Kaydan Nguyen a local uni student has been working for the last year at a small family-owned takeaway food outlet at Cairns Night Market, a popular hangout for tourists to have a cheap street eat and do some souvenir shopping, said it was extremely quiet.
“First there was the flood, then the fires, and now the coronavirus.”
Indigenous artist Munganbana Norman Miller has run an art gallery selling his work in Cairns for the last 24 years. Munganbana has experienced several boom and bust cycles of a town that relies almost entirely on the tourism dollar.
“There is a lot of fear from people wondering where their income will come from, especially in the retail industry, we all have mortgages and have to buy food and clothing,” Munganbana said.
“You only have to walk through the streets and see a lot of empty shops.”