With international travel banned for most of 2021 and a slow and behind-schedule vaccine rollout, the Morrison government has known for a long time that the tourism industry faced an existential crisis from the end of JobKeeper, which is keeping the industry on life support.

Employment in the accommodation sector is still nearly 20% below its level this time last year — and that was already well under 2019 levels in the wake of the bushfires.

Food and beverage services employment — about 10 times bigger than accommodation — is still down 10%, with much of that in regional areas hit by the lack of international visitors and the impact of border closures.

But for a government keen to end JobKeeper and switch to sector-specific programs to support industries still struggling — especially in Coalition-held seats — the tourism package needs to work effectively.

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To support those jobs in tourism destinations, the government has opted for trickledown support: one of Australia’s largest companies, Qantas, and its fresh-out-of-administration rival Virgin, will be given hundreds of millions in passenger ticket subsidies to fly Australians at half-price to selected regional tourism destinations, mostly in Queensland.

If you were hoping to holiday somewhere that’s not on the favoured destination list, bad luck. Ditto for capital cities. This is strictly a regional tourism package only.

Qantas and travel company stocks immediately lifted on the ASX this morning after the announcement, which of course had been carefully leaked overnight to favoured journalists.

But how much of the investment of taxpayer money trickles down to hotels, restaurants, cafes and tourism service providers remains to be seen. The only joy small and medium tourism businesses get directly from the package is the opportunity to take on more debt via an expanded version of the unsuccessful SME Loan Guarantee Scheme, in which the government offered to guarantee half of loans to small and medium businesses. That guarantee will now be upped to 80% to make the loans more attractive, along with higher loan limits and longer repayment terms.

But the main game is subsidising large companies with the expressed hope it flows through to actual workers and small businesses. That was the plan with JobKeeper, too, which saved hundreds of thousands of jobs but also flowed straight to the profits of a number of large companies.

It was also the plan with one of the government’s key budget measures: the 100% investment write-off, which was made available to all but the biggest companies.

The tourism sector needs a viable aviation sector. One of the longer-term consequences for Australia’s tourism industry is what kind of shape a shrunken international aviation sector is going to be in once the world is a relatively safe place for travel again, and how many tourists it will be able to deliver to Australia, and at what cost. But 800,000 half-price airfares doesn’t guarantee that taxpayer investment will reach the businesses struggling without tourists and JobKeeper, and guarantees that tourism services in major cities will get no support beyond the encouragement to take on more debt.

Trickledown support and pumping money into the regions — two characteristics of this government. Let’s hope, for the sake of hundreds of thousands of tourism workers, that as winter closes in in the southern states, Australians decide en masse to take a cheap flight to a warmer climate.

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