MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia’s top tourism agency estimated that the country’s forest fire crisis has so far cost the industry nearly a billion dollars ($ 690 million) and called for urgent help from the government to attract visitors.
FILE PHOTO: A wallaby eats after NSW National Park and Wildlife Service personnel threw carrots and sweet potatoes in areas affected by forest fires around Wollemi and Yengo National Parks, New South Wales, Australia, January 11, 2020. NSW DPIE Environment, Energy and Science / Brochure through REUTERS
Industry bosses were to meet with Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham later on Thursday, as storms and heavy rains gave a respite to the months of fierce forest fires on the east coast of Australia.
The fires, which killed 29 people and razed the bushes in an area the size of Bulgaria, have affected several coastal cities at the height of the profitable summer season.
“People have basically stopped traveling,” Simon Westaway, executive director of the Australian Tourism Industry Council (ATIC), told Reuters. “And that is absolutely understandable: human nature comes into action.”
Although recent colder conditions have led to the reopening of some tourist destinations after they were evacuated due to fires, people continue to distrust visits.
Images of burned cities, people huddled on the beaches to escape from large flames, dead wildlife and thick smoke that hangs over the main cities have been transmitted worldwide.
The qualifying rounds of the Australian Open in Melbourne this week, the first tennis Grand Slam of the year, have been affected by player complaints about the contamination.
“The images of the fires in the global market are very bad for our country,” Westaway said. “We are worried about the contagion you may have.”
Tourism represents more than 3% of the Australian economy of A $ 1.95 billion, with 9 million foreigners visiting the country annually and domestic tourism is growing.
Accommodation reservation cancellations in areas without fire have reached more than 60%, while in areas affected by the fire there were no tourists at all, Westaway said. Many destinations depend heavily on national tourism, as well as international visitors.
The wet weather this week brought a temporary respite for fire-affected areas, but it also came with the warning of possible flash floods and lightning that could ignite new fires.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier this week welcomed a US measure to lower a travel warning and has stressed that Australia is open for business.
Birmingham said it would seek first-hand comments from tourism chiefs at Thursday’s meeting and devise a strategy to assure visitors that many tourist destinations are not contaminated by fires.
(GRAPH: swirling smoke – here)
The following are some highlights of what is happening in the forest fire crisis:
** The Australian Meteorology Office provided some welcome news on Thursday with a new forecast that there is a 50% chance that most of the eastern part of the country will receive average rainfall from March 1 to May 30. Still, BOM warned that it warned that it would continue Rains will be needed to end a three-year drought.
** There were 85 fires across the state of New South Wales on Thursday, with 30 of them still to be contained, while 19 fires were lit in Victoria, according to fire authorities.
** The rain has relieved several firefighters working throughout the state of New South Wales. “Although this rain will not extinguish all fires, it will certainly contribute greatly to containment,” state fire services said.
** Emergency responders in Victoria have dealt with almost 600 cases of tree fall, flash floods and other damage since Wednesday night and warned of more storm hazards as of Monday.
** Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne were among the top 50 most polluted cities in the world on Thursday, according to the AirVisual pollution ranking for major cities in the world, with winds that will bring more smoke to Melbourne over the weekend.
** The smoke mist that has affected Australia’s main cities for weeks and has been tracked by NASA around the world.
** The conservative government of Australia has softened its rhetoric about climate change in the midst of the crisis, recognizing this week that the changes are real and that the country needs a strategy of “adaptation” and “resilience.”
** Wollemi Pines of Australia, giant prehistoric trees that were believed extinct until 1994, were especially protected by firefighters when the flames swept their secret location in a New South Wales national park.
(GRAPH: sizing Australia’s forest fire – here)
Report of Lidia Kelly; edition by Jane Wardell