June 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Tour de forced cancellations

By Anthony Ham
How Port Douglas, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree, has been quieted by lockdown

This has not been the best of times for Australia’s travel industry. First it was the bushfires, then came COVID-19. The virus has made the parameters of our lives smaller, more than any event in living memory, and the entire tourism sector has contracted along with it.

Take Port Douglas (“PD”, or simply “Port” to many locals), population 3504, in Far North Queensland. PD’s population can double during the holiday season, and in a good year the town attracts nearly half a million domestic and 100,000 international visitors. 

But times are tough. “The last time it was this bad was way back in 1989, during the pilots’ strike,” says Maf Burke, who runs Tony’s Tropical Tours and has lived in Port for more than three decades. “Nearly everyone in town works directly or indirectly in tourism,” she says.

Even if you tried to travel to Port Douglas right now, you probably wouldn’t make it. 

Flights are operating, says Nikki Chamberlain, an experienced travel consultant, but “you would need to be travelling for something essential at this point to avoid issues with the law”. In case anyone considers their desperate need to escape confinement and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef “essential”, she points out that a statutory declaration attesting to your cast-iron necessity for travel is the minimum you would need to get past airport and airline security. Not many people are trying. “I haven’t booked a single flight in weeks,” says Chamberlain. 

Normally, Cairns Airport, the closest commercial airport to Port Douglas, would be gearing up for its busiest time of the year – a good April or May might see 450,000 passengers pass through. But today the airport’s arrivals board tells a sorry story: a single daily flight from Brisbane, another from Townsville, and just six other flights from Queensland’s small regional airports. Check-in desks stand empty, most shops have closed, and the car parks are full: the parking areas set aside for car-rental companies aren’t big enough to house all the idle vehicles.

The main road to Port Douglas, State Route 44, bucks and weaves north between rainforest walls and deserted beaches. But police patrols stop most cars, interrogating drivers as to whether they really need to travel. Cairns and its hinterland have recorded 32 cases of coronavirus. Port, 68 kilometres away, remains without a single case. And everybody would like to keep it that way.

For those already there, a walk down Macrossan Street, PD’s main strip, is an unsettling experience. The two tourist information and reservation centres are closed; even their phone numbers have been disconnected. Quicksilver, one of the most popular boat operators, offering trips to its pontoon on Agincourt Reef near the continental shelf, has gone from a sales and reservation team of 10 working seven days a week to a single sales rep from Monday to Friday. 

All of the ice-cream shops have closed, along with most of the restaurants. Mocka’s Pies is one of few to remain open, with takeaway its core business. But its crocodile-laksa and bush-kangaroo pies appeal almost exclusively to international clientele and, as far as anyone can tell, there is not a single tourist anywhere in Port or the surrounding area. Business is slow.

The impact is indiscriminate, affecting the upscale boutiques in much the same way as the lowbrow emporiums selling bikinis, board shorts and sarongs. The Iron Bar, a rough-and-tumble watering hole famous for its nightly cane-toad races, is shuttered. We ask one local if the races are still happening. “Only in the wild,” is the reply. 

In Anzac Park, at the northern end of Macrossan Street where the Sunday market once trampled the lawns, the grass has never been this long. Only Coles supermarket, the bottle shop of the Courthouse Hotel, and the pharmacy are open. 

“It’s worse than a ghost town,” says Burke. “February’s normally our quietest month, and not even February is like this. Everything’s shut. It’s quite devastating, really.”

Port Douglas is the gateway for two of Australia’s most visited attractions: the Great Barrier Reef and the UNESCO World Heritage–listed rainforests, including some of the oldest on earth. Together they’re Australia’s sixth-most popular international tourist destination, and in the top 10 for domestic travellers.

For now, at least, none of the hotels are open, and most of the national parks are closed. No one picks up the phone at the visitor centre for Mossman Gorge – the centre has closed and the local Kuku Yalanji children can enjoy the rainforest waterholes without the accompanying tourist hordes. Where Indigenous guides once welcomed visitors to the forest with a traditional smoking ceremony before leading them along rainforest trails, those trails are now largely left to Boyd’s forest dragons and cassowaries, and the rivers to the platypus. The forest is hushed, and it must surely be wondrous without crowds of visitors – its strangler vines, its hardwoods that climb to a tangled canopy far above the forest floor, its quiet rustled by the wind.

North of the Daintree River, along the locals-only road to Cape Tribulation, things are so quiet that cassowaries have been filmed crossing the normally busy road with their chicks in tow. 

“The planet needed a break from humans,” says David White, who runs Solar Whisper, the only solar-powered boat running croc and other wildlife tours along the Daintree River. “The wildlife needed a break.” 

Like everyone else up here, however, White can’t ignore more immediate concerns. His business is in hibernation and he’s left trying to keep hold of his staff through the federal government’s JobKeeper payments. But he has already taken out a personal loan to assist a struggling employee, and, given revenue from international visitors drives his business, he doesn’t know how long he can hold on. “This is all new territory for me,” he admits. “At the moment, there are still lots of bills coming in, and no money at all. I’m living off borrowed money and am very concerned.”

He’s not alone.

“For the past four weeks we are doing nothing but cancellations, sometimes 10 to 15 a day,” says Burke, whose tours go to Mossman Gorge and the rainforests off the Cape Trib road. “Unfortunately, we have no forward bookings and only two enquiries for the Christmas period so far – one from Belgium and one from the US.” Otherwise, the phone has stopped ringing.

Rumours swirl around Port Douglas about businesses that may never reopen. But for now, everyone is hanging on, relying on government assistance as well as drawing on private savings to keep their heads above water.

“Everyone like us is hoping that it will only be until the end-of-June school holidays,” says Burke, “and that the domestic market will carry us through.” 

Even so, she fears “tourism will be the last thing that starts up. People have got to have that money to go on holidays after all this has happened.” And if Australians do start to travel again, Burke says, it may not be enough. “Aussies normally don’t spend a lot of money. They’re more likely to come up here and lie on the beach. That’s an Aussie holiday. It’s normally the international visitors who spend the money on tours. And they’re the ones we rely on.” 

Burke says the local businesses are used to doing it tough up here, often for years in a row. “We just get through one drama up here, and we think nothing else will happen, and then there’ll be a cyclone or the floods. And now this.”

But they also understand it could be worse, should COVID-19 make its way up State Route 44. “We’ve been pretty lucky up here,” Burke says. “We’re removed from everything.” 

That’s true for Australia itself: in some things, at least, it can be good to be a long way from the action.

Anthony Ham

Anthony Ham writes about wildlife, conservation and current affairs for magazines and newspapers around the world.

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