bushfire sydney tourism industry smoke
(Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

Australia was once — just a few months ago — a carefree nation abundant with wildlife and bushland. Now, we are the nation on fire. And the world is watching on in horror.

Just how are we perceived abroad — and what effect will the bushfires have on our economy? 

Concerts cancelled and campuses closed

Australia is known for its large-scale sporting events, world-renowned universities and epic music festivals (well, everywhere outside NSW at least).

But events have been cancelled en masse: revellers have been left disappointed after Falls Festival, Rainbow Serpent and Lost Paradise music festivals were all cancelled due to extreme weather. The World Rally Championship was axed, a Big Bash match abandoned, and the SOLAS Big Boat Challenge called off.

In NSW, more than a dozen local agricultural events have been called off for the first time since World War II.

At Sydney Festival, acclaimed theatre production Opening Night was cancelled due to poor air quality from the smoke (a decision made not by Sydney Festival but by the play’s French production company).

Australian National University (ANU) campuses in Canberra were also closed for several days over the Christmas break, to “ensure the safety of the ANU community” and “minimise the number of people on campus as it faced the ongoing challenges of smoke and intermittent power outages”. An ANU spokesperson told Crikey they had received queries from international agents about the fires and smoke.

Sydney University also issued a statement, reassuring students the fires were not affecting the city directly. “The situation in Sydney is fundamentally safe and we look forward to welcoming you to our community,” the statement read.

Where the bloody hell are the tourists?

In the last financial year, tourists spent a record $44.6 billion roaming the country. But international ministries have started to update their travel advice, with Singapore advising travellers to “exercise vigilance” and the US state department warning travellers to “exercise increased caution”. 

Meanwhile, Tourism Australia has indefinitely paused the $15 million “Matesong” ad running in the UK, with shots of pristine beaches and verdant bushland at odds with the hazy reality. 

Margy Osmond, chief executive of Tourism & Transport Forum says tourists — both domestic and international — have already started to cancel their plans to visit.

“I hear that from our Tourism & Transport members that the knock-on effect is happening in terms of cancellation. It isn’t straightforward at this point to quantify the impact,” she said. “We see this in terms of bookings across our membership sector.”

While Osmond stresses travellers stay safe and heed government travel advice, she says planning a holiday is more important now than ever.

“What we need to do now is support those who have been affected as well as support those who are still open for business,” she said. “We are looking at so many small operators here which both themselves and their staff depend on their regular weekly paycheck.”

Developers and investors not fazed by the haze

While foreign ownership of Australian land is a contentious issue, there’s no doubt it brings in the big bucks. Chinese developers alone purchased 31% of total sites sold in 2018, worth $1.3 billion. Foreign investment peaked in 2015-16 at $72 billion (but hit a near-decade low in 2017-18 at $13 billion). 

According to Marc Giuffrida, head of real estate advisory firm CBRE, the fires won’t affect these numbers. “There has been no mention of the bushfires affecting Australia’s attractiveness as a destination for our real estate investors,” he told Crikey.

“Whilst investors have different drivers, the common theme is that they are attracted to Australia’s economic and political stability and growth prospects relative to their home market and other destinations.”

But from upset party-goers and concerned students to inconvenienced holiday-makers and stranded tourists, in the eyes of the globe Australia is moving away from being a land of milk and honey to a land of ashes and denialism.