(Image: ZuluZulu/Pixabay)

After months of pleading with residents to stay home, the Victorian and NSW governments this week lifted most restrictions on tourism within your own state. Many other states have already allowed recreational travel, and interstate and trans-Tasman tourism is tipped to follow in the coming months.

For many communities reliant on the visitor economy, the change provides hope for recovery after bushfires, floods and COVID-19 slashed economic activity. With most international borders remaining closed for the foreseeable future, some are even dreaming of a coming domestic tourism boom.

But while present conditions may produce a temporary spike in regional road trips, we are unlikely to see a long-term revival of the “laid back”, achievable Aussie holidays that Paul Hogan once mythologised.

For Australians to travel more, they need two things that our economy increasingly denies them: discretionary income and time to spend it.

We’re not going to Bonnie Doon

One of the many ways in which neoliberalism has hollowed out Australian social life is the slow destruction of the institution of the family holiday.

Before coronavirus, we were already taking fewer holidays than we did in previous decades. Tourism Research Australia (TRA) noted last year that the number and length of holidays taken by Australians had declined over the previous two decades, while spending per holiday had declined since around the global financial crisis. Roy Morgan Research found travel industry growth was essentially propped up by population growth.

The first reason for these conditions is successive governments’ concerted efforts to flatten lower and middle incomes. TRA finds the key factors subduing demand are low wage growth, and high petrol and airfare prices relative to wages.

Another under-appreciated reason is the increasing encroachment of work on employees’ leisure time. The average worker works at least four to five hours more per week than their contractual limit. That limit is there for a reason: it’s set by the Fair Work Commission to just below the rate at which workers are put at greater risk of developing mental health issues. The extent of overwork is also likely underestimated, as many labour hours are conveniently not recorded by employers.

Working these extra hours has not put more pay in workers’ pockets. Australians lose approximately $10,000 each per year to unpaid overtime, according to The Australia Institute.

And for the rising number of insecure workers, paid annual leave and public holidays are usually unavailable. I worked for five years on casual contracts and freelance work, meaning all holidays were unpaid. Whenever I took time off, I had to work extra hours in the preceding months to bolster the savings I would inevitably lose. Those in more precarious financial positions often simply miss out on time away with loved ones.

Mark it in the calendar

While improving wages and conditions is a complex, long-term task, there is one simple step that state and federal governments could enact: increasing the number of public holidays.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent suggestion of a four-day working week as a driver of domestic tourism is welcome, and should likewise be a long-term aspiration for Australia. But many firms who have negotiated four-day weeks during the pandemic have ensured commensurate wage cuts. At present, it is more a corporate survival strategy than a plan for mass economic and social empowerment.

Public holidays, however, give workers time off work without reducing their wages. This would better stimulate leisure spending, and give workers a much needed break. Those who must still work would be paid penalty rates, which also stimulates discretionary consumption.

There are also significant health benefits to working less, and employees are more productive at work when they return.

A well-earned rest

The Victorian government introduced two new public holidays in 2015. Despite predictable howling from business representatives, whose preferred modelling omitted the benefits of “coordinated leisure time”, the dates are now loved by the public, bipartisan and here to stay.

Now the Queensland government is moving their Ekka public holiday to a Friday so residents can enjoy a long weekend away. But instead of swapping dates around, why not simply add more?

There is also a loftier rationale: even for those of us lucky enough to enjoy our paid labour, it will rarely nourish the soul as our external lives do. The rewards for labour must not only be measured in dollars, but also in wet beach towels, muddied hiking boots and well-thumbed books.

The designation of time for leisure was a founding principle of the Australian labour movement and was once firmly reflected in our industrial laws. As lockdowns have reminded us of the embeddedness of our economic and social lives, we ought to recommit to ensuring a healthy balance between them.

At the end of this working week, all states except Queensland and Western Australia will enjoy the Queen’s Birthday long weekend. Savour your days off folks, in whatever happy place you may visit — until all of us can visit that place more frequently.

Do you still go on family holidays? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.