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Australians are holidaying at home, for now

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The road to Broome is desolate, the landscape surrounding it almost bereft of visible life. The pindan soil — so intensely pigmented it will stain your clothes forevermore — is cloaked in withering scrub and waves of spear grass bent double by the last of the wet season rains. But the emptiness is dispelled as I pull into Broome, a frontier city located on Western Australia’s Kimberley coast. The city centre, currently undergoing a major revamp, buzzes with pedestrians. Restaurants require booking. Down on Cable Beach, cameleers are lining up their charges for sunset rides and road-trippers are driving onto the wet sand and setting up camping chairs and cracking beers as they settle in for the show of a lifetime.

Main image: Roebuck bay (John Clutterbuck/Getty Images)

It’s taken a pandemic to convince Australians to holiday at home. Almost overnight we were locked out from a world that had until then held our adoring gaze and forced us to narrow our focus. People joyously rediscovered their suburbs and cities, regions and states; they stepped out tentatively at first, and then marched boldly as far as border lockdowns would allow them. Capitalising on this characteristically (and untempered) Australian desire to travel, Tourism Australia is now coaxing wanderlust-stricken ramblers to venture further still with its Epic Holidays campaign — part of the ongoing Holiday Here This Year campaign, which was launched in response to the January 2020 bushfires.

‘This new campaign aims to get Australians to travel further afield, take a longer holiday, and visit those parts of the country typically reliant on international tourism,’ says Dan Tehan, Federal Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. ‘Australians typically spend more overseas than foreign tourists spend in Australia, so we want Australians to treat their domestic holiday this year like an overseas trip.’

And so here I am, arriving in what feels like a foreign country. But though it’s true the Kimberley is (for those who don’t live there) a once-in-a-lifetime destination, it’s not my first time here: three years ago my family and I drove the Gibb River Road, a dream that had taken us years to realise; for the fabled tyranny of distance applies not only to Australia’s position relative to other continents, but to the proximity of its grandest destinations to the cities in which the majority of the population live. Travel to such distant places is often prohibitively expensive, but COVID has spurred many people to bite the bullet.

‘We were sick of having holidays cancelled and I thought, “I’m not going to be able to holiday outside of WA”, so we came to Broome. Best decision I’ve ever made,”’ says one woman as we cruise the dolphin-and-dugong-inhabited Roebuck Bay.

‘We’ve probably spent more money on this trip than any other, but for what we’ve done it has been totally worth it.’


'Though enthusiasm for domestic tourism has seldom been greater, it has nonetheless been enforced by COVID.'


A just-married couple on the same cruise tells me they would never have come here if not for the pandemic; they would have honeymooned in New Zealand or America instead.

‘It’s forced us to explore Australia,’ the bride says.

The 4WD crowds down on Cable Beach would surely agree; they’re jovial as they queue up to leave after that electrifying sunset. On the previous night’s flight into this city I’d sat beside a couple from Melbourne, among the new wave of intrastate travellers trickling back across the border. Even before they’d clapped eyes on the oxblood earth and heroic formations and bluer-than-blue sea, they were certain, they said, they’d return. 

But it’s not all shimmering sunsets and calm waters: without the concomitant inflow of foreign backpackers, staff shortages in the hospitality industry are a problem. And tourist demand means prices remain high. Local whale watching operator and long-term resident Cam Birch is sceptical about the forecast Broome boom, saying operators risk sabotaging their businesses by pricing local tourists out of the market.

‘They’ve finally got people coming and instead of saying, “let’s make this affordable, let’s make it easy”, they’re going for the quick grab and soon as the world opens up everyone’s going go, “Bugger Broome”.’

Such an eventuality is plausible. Though enthusiasm for domestic tourism has seldom been greater, it has nonetheless been enforced by COVID. When borders finally open, Australian travellers will line up at departure gates like shoppers at the Boxing Day sales. With luck, international travellers will pass them on their way in, thus boosting the Australian businesses that have lost out on their patronage.

The economy, we trust, will recover. But the Australia we yearn for — that juxtaposition of red earth and cobalt sea — will remain forever a figment of our collective imagination unless we heed the imperative to discover it for ourselves.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. 

Main image: Roebuck Bay (John Clutterbuck/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, tourism, Broome, Kimberley, Western Australia, Cable Beach, Roebuck Bay, COVID-19



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Existing comments

In the spirit of View of the World from 9th Avenue, someone should do the same for Australia, where every tourist destination within is illustrated in fine detail from a sort of bird’s eye view, with the rest of the world as a gently sloping blur, with a few scratches here and there to imply the Leaning Tower or Machu Picchu or the Taj or whatever.

roy chen yee | 29 May 2021  

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