High season caravan occupancy rate: Zero.



In a normal season the space behind Brendan Heenan is filled with caravans.

A multi award winning caravan park with 340 sites and 52 cabins, well into the season without a single visitor – that is a truely scary sight in a town whose commercial  life depends on tourism.
And yet that’s Brendan Heenan’s MacDonnell Range Holiday Park today.
The industry pioneer and decades long participant in its promotion says if the state borders are not open by July then he,  all other Alice caravan parks, the pubs, clubs, restaurants, accommodation, tourist attractions, souvenir shops won’t have a 2020 season.
As the high visitation period ends at the beginning of October these businesses will have no significant income until April next year.
By then it’s likely that many businesses will have hit the wall.
Yet Chief Minister Michael Gunner, apart from his professed aim of protecting the Territory’s people, has not articulated the conditions for re-opening the NT except to say it will be the last COVID-19 measure lifted.
This will keep out the bulk of the 400,000 visitors who spend money here every year.
“The trouble is Mr Gunner is not going to open up the borders until everything else is open,” says Mr Heenan, born and bred in Alice Springs, 80 years old.
In his view international visitation is not expected to return much before 2022 “to get back to where we were” – depending on the state of the pandemic, and the need for visitors to quarantine.
Now all stops must be pulled out to encourage Aussies to visit their own country.
“About nine million people go overseas every year from Australia. And they spend 50 billion dollars,” he says.
Tourism Australia, which usually spends money to bring visitors to Australia, is starting a TV campaign to get Australians to look at their own country.
But Tourism NT and Tourism Central Australia are slow off the mark to make their pitch.
Mr Heenan says he is not aware of any new local initiatives. TCA’s next meeting is due on May 28.
Its president, Dale McIver, has resigned to stand in Braitling for Territory Alliance in the August election, and the organisation’s CEO Stephen Schwer has also departed.
It won’t be easy – many young people have lost their jobs and have no money to travel, says Mr Heenan.
The grey nomads are likely to be “at least 50%” of the potential visitors, plus families who are still working, especially between the end of the school holiday and the end of the season.
“They are itching to go, to get out of the cold winter weather down south.”
Would roadhouses be able to survive for the best part of a year without income?
The current break is a lull when upgrades and improvements can be made, with JobKeeper money coming in, says Mr Heenan.
Meanwhile, the rest stops on the Stuart Highway are mostly ugly and misused by travellers for overnighting, leaving behind their rubbish and excrement, he says.
Most people able to travel will be keen to spread their love also to the victims of the drought and bushfires.
The Sunday morning pancake treat is on hold.
Is the local industry coming up with fresh attractions?
“No-one does any Aboriginal Cultural Tours any more,” says Mr Heenan. “Not that I know of. We should be in the forefront of all that, with our Indigenous people, all around the Centre here.”
He says that’s never been the region’s strong point: For example, the show at the now closed Heavitree Hotel next-door to Mr Heenan’s park featured mostly Aboriginal people from Queensland.
“We can’t find anybody. Which is ridiculous. The land council and Tangentyere should be at the forefront of that.”
Mr Heenan says a closer involvement in tourism of Aboriginal people at The Rock should be encouraged, perhaps also acting as guides for groups climbing the monolith and telling them about its cultural significance.
He says the Ayers Rock Resort and Alice Springs should be working together – they are not right now, with most flights bypassing the town.
Alice being the hub is a concept now gone, but fostering a small airline – such as Air North – flying between Adelaide, Alice, The Rock and Darwin could regain some of these opportunities.
Another initiative for Alice Springs could be the opening up of the southern flank of the Mount Gillen range, still within the immediate vicinity of the town.
“I’ve done it, climbing up the eastern side of The Gap and walking along the ridge to Emily Gap. And on the other side I climbed up Mt Gillen and walked along the range to The Gap.
“Or you can walk all the way from Honeymoon Gap. These are opportunities we can offer,” says Mr Heenan. “It’s beautiful up through there.”
The lock-down of The Centre’s national parks, including most of the West MacDonnells, while parks in the Top End are being opened up, is mystery to Mr Heenan.
Locals would no doubt like to “visit Standley Chasm for a day visit, go out to Glen Helen for lunch. But the main thing we’ve got to worry about is getting these borders open”.
Is TCA acting as a pressure group influencing the government?
Potentially yes, says Mr Heenan, and also groups such as banks which in turn could influence the Federal government.
“All of us work with banks. We should be talking to them. Get them to talk to their head offices to put pressure on the Federal, state and Territory governments to get the borders open.
“Businesses will have to resume repaying their loans in October. It’s in the banks’ interest to get businesses back on track.”
“We can lobby our government, as can the Chamber of Commerce.
“Start bombarding the Chief Minister. Why should we be last to open up our borders? We should be one of the first ones.
“We open up the pubs and everything else. We won’t have a tourism industry here if we are not open by July.”
UPDATE 6.40pm May 17
Mr Heenan provided the following information from the Caravan Industry Association of Australia: Caravanners and campers are seven times more likely to taken an immediate holiday once restrictions are lifted. More than 500,000 travellers are eager to hit the road within the next two months.


  1. Closing the borders was the right thing to do but now is the time to open the borders to SA and WA, provided they keep their borders to the east closed, which they are doing.
    NOW is the the time to announce it so people can make their travel plans.

  2. Why sm I safer staying in a caravan park then other camping areas?
    Many don’t need to socialise and if we do, all keep the distancing rules.
    Our toilets are cleaned by us everyday and only used by us.
    If you go to a shopping centre you are lucky if they have hand wash and/or cleaned once a day!
    Just so confused on why many of us who have no fixed address were required to go into caravan parks and some lucky to camp-up in paddocks etc.

  3. What is happening to tourism in Central Australia indeed the NT is heartbreaking for those directly affected and those in the broader economy that will now find it harder to keep the doors open.
    The fact is Tourism in Australia has changed for the long term, it is already being admitted by the UK Minister for Health that they may never find a successful vaccine for COVID-19.
    That means international tourists are a long way off and then the processes of mixing in with Aboriginal People in particular complicated.
    Australian tourists can fill the void as we are now less likely to go to places like Bali due to developing countries lack of ability to control COVID-19. Checking, tracing and tracking of tourists will be mandatory and create extra administration for the tourism industry.
    If there is anything left of this tourist season then it may be best to promote interstate and hope the border closures in particular in the populous area of the eastern states [end] soon.
    Cost has turned off families in particular coming, airlines will need to partner with tourism operators to bring about competitive holiday deals.
    Be mindful of cost. Yulara is a major problem as the cost of holidaying there has made Central Australia known as an overly expensive area to holiday.
    This needs to change and the sooner the better.

  4. “We won’t have a tourism industry here if we are not open by July.”
    Well, according to CM Michael Gunner on a Darwin radio station today, the borders won’t be open until the beginning of August at the earliest, and only – effectively – if COVID-19 is eliminated in Australia.
    Meanwhile Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has stated her state’s borders will likely remain closed until September.
    Looks to me the Northern Territory is experiencing a change every bit as transformative as what happened here because of the Second World War.

  5. Sorry but there is literally no reason to visit the NT, it no longer offers anything one would want to do. The climb was the only reason. So tough luck, you shot yourself in the foot. Also tough luck your business is no more important or essential then the rest and will open when it’s declared safe to you are not anything special.

  6. I am at present camped in my caravan in central SA moving from one roadside stop to the next waiting for the NT border to open.
    I live in my caravan and I am from Darwin, my family are in Darwin.
    I am fully self contained and would be happy to self quarantine at Kulgera or Marla for two weeks.

  7. Yes Brendan. You can write off any tourist season this year 2020, will be not much better 2021 and maybe something will happen by 2022/3.
    Self funded retirees make up a large number of travellers, they are taking a hit with reduced dividend income, other oldies are tightening their spending patterns.
    Families are looking at education problems and any spare cash will be put toward paying the mortgage rather than holidays.
    As we all know, the NT is not a cheap place to visit. All states will be offering good deals for locals to experience, they are coming out now for future travel.
    There will be a number of tourist operators fall by the wayside, never to return.
    This in turn will reflect on other business operators who rely on a tourist season to give them that extra bit of business and consequent cash flow to keep people employed.
    At this point in time the NT is not in a good position to face the full a force of this virus issue. It will really start to hit the fan in the next few months.

  8. It’s worth remembering the 1918 influenza pandemic that claimed so many indigenous people lives in the region. Back then movement was slow but the virus was not.
    To open the borders now and allow the convoy of sun seekers from states with community transmission is stupidity.
    What happens when they are snug up together in the Caravanserai and some fall ill and test positive? Meanwhile others in contact move on. Big job sorting that one out.
    Shut downs again, deep cleans, health workers and others in the front line at risk. If that happens it’s probably going to be locked gates and lights out for good.

  9. Brendan is spot on.
    I tried to visit Stanley Chasm the other day and was told they are renovating while they have the chance.
    That’s exactly what the industry should be doing here.
    The Berri Barmera Council in the SA Riverland has just got $1m to establish short environmental walks around the lake there.
    There has been a rush to do the same in other parts of the country.
    Fleuriou peninsula Wauringa in Sydney, have done the same, while we sat watching people go right past.
    Our thinking has been so limited in what is possible here. The walk east along the ranges will no doubt be thwarted by the possibility of a housing subdivision.
    The Arumbera land with all its bio-diversity will be an industrial subdivision which I am sure visitors will come here to explore and enjoy.
    I shudder to think what could have happened at Kilgariff with all the native food display possibilities, and the mega fauna museum in conjunction with the geological displays.
    Townsville has a hub of excellence in mining. We have a drain!
    The tourism hub will inevitably shift south of The Gap, mainly because that is the major entry point to the whole of the NT and will inevitably be the centre of economic activity, starting with an up to date visitors centre like Katherine, Winton and McLaren Vale but at the Transport Hall of Fame with a central theme just as Winton has Waltzing Matilda and fossils and the cultural centre here in conjunction with Yirara, and the students involved in the management.
    Short sighted planning in the extreme.

  10. Maybe there might be a need for a local focus. Start promoting to the locals as a night or nights away from the normal life.
    Might be fun for families they can camp or stay in a cabin, especially with Finke cancelled it would be a good way for people to still get the camping experience (kind of).
    Start some specials and organise some sort of special events.
    With all the confusion it would be good to get out there and let everyone know you are open and what is available.

  11. Sorry, but as long as there are still new cases being confirmed in Vic and NSW – keep the borders closed.
    We are free so far, so let’s keep it that way. NO to Opening the Borders. Sorry, but everyone is taking a hit from all this. But for our safety, keep them closed.

  12. There is a lot of discontent in Aboriginal communities about the lockdown.
    Many say they were tricked into returning home only to locked down.
    People in town and free (relatively) and they are still locked down?
    Yes for their own benefit but try explaining that.
    Getting them back to their communities if the virus takes hold here will not be so easy next time around.
    Keep the borders closed.

  13. It appears that some people believe COVID-19 is like a fire. It won’t just fizzle out, it needs to be managed out.
    While we need to balance the economic factors against those for personal or financial gain, keeping the borders closed for a bit longer can only help us.
    Many citing impacts to tourism appear to be more concerned about money. This mentality got us here in the first place.
    Yep, these times are tough for all but the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a few.

  14. I did not read the whole article.
    More of the same winging about zero income in this tourist season.
    Yes we know, and after the bush fires too. We have it hard.
    But we are better off without COVID-19 as we have been able to do so far in the NT, than to have a real wave (not even 2nd wave) just for the income that a few tourists or locals may bring with open borders and open restaurants or caravan parks.
    And I assume that these 1/2 million tourists are not waiting at the border to flood the NT and spend their money “as usual”.
    These times are not usual.
    Tourists are better staying home a bit longer, for the sake and health of the whole nation.

  15. No reason not to open the boarders to WA, SA and NT. Just keep Vic, NSW and QLD until the numbers are consistently zero.
    It’s better to get some people travelling now otherwise it will be too busy all at once.

  16. Alice Springs and Uluru and environs need to do something about making cheaper camping for caravans and motorhomes.
    The Alice Showgrounds should be open permanently at reasonable rates.
    We won’t pay over $10 a night and need no facilities except dump point and water.
    What councils need to realise we don’t have the funds to pay $35 a night plus.
    If we do all the money goes to a caravan park and we don’t have money to spend on other tourist attractions, cafes or restaurants.
    The economy of the world is going to be disastrous for a fair while and those who think tourism is going to rush back are dreaming.
    Look at the towns and areas that are doing so well out of supplying free or low cost camping for caravans and motorhomes.
    Wake up Alice Springs and cater for those on lower incomes that still spend money and allow them to enjoy your region.

  17. Look, better to be safe than sorry. Keep the borders closed for the time being.
    I would dearly love to be towing our house on wheels to Alice for our winter sojourn, however commonsense prevails.
    Just to shed some light on the tourist dollars, and I will only refer to the grey nomads: They are the majority of visitors in the winter; spend their money at the supermarkets, on caravan park site fees, fuel stations and perhaps some alcohol.
    We own a business in Alice so we have a fair idea where the tourist dollars are spent. Thank goodness for our wonderful locals and thank you.


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