Going local: Australians return to backyard holidays as travel options shrink

It’s long been a travel trope that no matter where you end up in the world, even in the most remote and exotic of locations, you will find an Australian.

Until the lockdowns locked us in, Australians were making more overseas trips than ever before. A bumper year for travel, 2018- 2019 set a record with 11.2m trips taken overseas by Australians. This is more than double – at 5.4m – the number of departures 10 years ago, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Cheaper flights, more carriers and until recently a strong Australian dollar, has meant travelling overseas has been more affordable than it was a generation ago, where an overseas holiday was a luxury item and most travelling was done domestically, by car.

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Take Brendan Murnane. The 38-year-old Australian flies to America to attend Coachella each year, spends the Australian winter in Europe and recently enjoyed five months travelling in South America.

In Queensland, where he has been based since early April, his travel plans have shrunk – but also his priorities. With most of his family and friends in Melbourne, the only trip he really wants to take is to Victoria.

“It’s not like I can’t wait for the world to open up so I can go travelling again – it’s like I can’t wait for Melbourne to open up so I can see my family again. It’s the opposite of what it used to be.”

He doesn’t intend to travel overseas again until “there is a full vaccine”. Instead, the closed borders have been “sort of needed”. “It’s a good reset,” he says.

Apart from a desire to travel from Perth to Darwin along the coastline, Murnane has reevaluated his relationship to travel.

“The mindset now to be honest is not rushing around, and just being content with smaller trips. I think beforehand we just took local places nearby for granted. And I’m definitely keen to see people, not places – because we’ve been unable to with the lockdowns.”

So once state border restrictions and stay-at-home orders lift, what will travel for Australians look like?

The Guardian spoke to five experts in the Australian travel industry on how the pandemic is changing how we holiday.

The rise of the regions

With so many of us locked down in cities, the last place people want to visit is another city, particularly if amenities like bars, restaurants, theatres and shops are closed or under restricted trading.

Daniel Finch, Wotif Group managing director, says search for regional areas on Wotif is booming.

“People, after being locked indoors for so long, are looking for something more rural, regional and peaceful – not cities.”

People want to experience “authentic country service and hospitality”, he says.

The big losers in this trend, according to Finch, are major-city five-star hotels.

“They will struggle because some have been completely closed and there have been a lot of redundancies. To bring back a five-star operation with skilled staff is not easy and with a reduction of business travel, there is a double whammy.”

James Thornton, the CEO of Intrepid, says although the travel industry is in a place of “extreme flux and uncertainty”, one of the key trends is that people want to have active and nature-based experiences.

“[After lockdown] people will be so keen to get out and do something. When restrictions start to ease, we’ll see hyper-local travel [for Victorians] in places such as Wilsons Prom, Mornington Peninsula and experiences that incorporate things like wineries and walks. Then hopefully confidence builds and then we’ll see more interstate travel,” says Thornton.

At the start of the pandemic, Intrepid had to cancel the trips of 55,000 customers. Only 4,500 requested refunds, the rest deferring their travel. Intrepid have had to rapidly develop new tours and products in response to closed borders and the pandemic.

“People want an experience that’s a retreat or in nature,” says Thornton.

In response to a survey of 2,000 Australians, Intrepid developed a range of regional trips that take in nature, walks, wineries, glamping, Indigenous experiences and visits to bushfire-affected regions.

“This is a great opportunity to experience our own backyard,” Thornton says.

Short trips are also booming in popularity due to uncertainty around restrictions and borders opening and closing.

Finch is seeing bookings for trips two to five hours’ drive away from people’s homes, for anywhere from two to five nights.

“We’re still seeing really large amounts of interest in Mornington Peninsula and Geelong for shorter trips in Victoria, and Dubbo, Orange, Mudgee, the Hunter Valley and [NSW] south coast for people from Sydney.”

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Sarah Griffin, head of marketing at Play Travel, an Afterpay travel company, says: “People are booking domestic trips with a 10-month lead-in time. These are not bucket list trips – these are weekends away, because of economic impact and border closures. But people still want to have something to look forward to.”

The great Aussie road trip

All the experts interviewed by the Guardian predicted the return of the road trip – a throwback to holidays taken before the late 1990s, when flights started becoming cheaper.

Says Finch of Wotif: “Our data is showing people are booking multi-destination road trips, spending two or three nights in one place then moving on to the next destination.”

His data is showing an average of a week to 10 days away.

“I think that old-school road trip will definitely pick up as a trend. Australians are showing a greater interest in exploring not just the tried and tested destinations but harder to reach places, where you might need a car.

“People more than ever are now prepared to do a domestic trip that’s a bit challenging. We have been inconvenienced with Covid and people’s tolerance to get to that difficult destination has increased,” he says.

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Griffin says she has seen an uptake in “more campervan and car hire options” due to the demand for road trip holidays.

Until there is more certainty, travellers are also looking to book places where they have more control over food and hygiene.

“We’ve seen the popularity of products that allow social distancing including campervans, self-contained apartments, car hire and glamping. There is also a preference for self-catering accommodation, partly because there’s a lot of grey areas around what hotels are doing. Are they doing buffet breakfasts? What about their restaurants: are they allowed to open?”

The road trip trend has the potential to cut across multiple demographics, according to Associate Professor Gabby Walters from the University of Queensland Business School. She believes the young Australian rite of passage to take a big overseas trip could be converted into “an opportunity for kids to pack up their swags and travel around Australia”.

Grey nomads will also continue to travel because “having a caravan allows them to not travel in other people’s accommodation – and they have control over their hygiene”.

“They are a lucrative business and they are likely to be going to regional areas off-the-beaten-track like regional and central Queensland,” says Walters. “They are familiar with our medical system and our hospital system – and we have clean, accredited attractions. All these things are appealing to Australian travellers as they look at other countries’ responses to the pandemic and see places overseas are not doing so well.”

Another tourism insider predicting the return of the road trip is Tony Quarmby, executive general manager of marketing at Tourism NT.

“The 1970s Aussie road trip will have a resurgence,” he says. “People are looking at what they can do that is affordable and safe from a health perspective. The interesting unknown is how far these Aussie road trips will go from their home base. Until all restrictions are eased we won’t know what it will look like. But there’s a huge increase in sales of campervans.”

Some of this market will be older travellers.

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“Grey nomads are a resilient bunch. We expect to see them bounce pretty quickly. So when the borders lifted [in the NT], they were queued up at the rest stops along the road at the border of the Territory. When the hotspots restrictions are eased, that will increase the number again.

“The grey nomads are hardy travellers. They are an older demographic – they have been through upheavals before. Financially, they are more secure. They can self-quarantine in their own accommodation and they feel their form of travel is a lot safer than going to the airport.”

In addition to road trips, Quarmby thinks there is a chance for experiences such as a trip on the Ghan train to boom, as Australians can no longer take holidays on cruise ships – for now.

“Australians were one of the largest per capita cruise ship markets in the world and they will look for alternatives and the road trip will be there. Things like the Ghan as well will benefit, because it’s a similar type of travel to cruising.”

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