By JULIUS DENNIS
As the NT Government is providing three quarters of a million dollars to entice fruit pickers mostly to the Top End, tourism operators in The Centre are also wanting “melon money” for the industry which is desperately short of staff.
“If six housekeepers walked in the door, I would start them immediately,” says Martin Sisson, the general manager of the Aurora hotel in Alice Springs.
The hotel is so short on staff that they risk not opening rooms because they cannot be serviced in time.
A tourism source says the Ayers Rock Resort is several hundred staff short. The News has been unable to reach any spokespersons so far but we’ll keep trying.
While the News was on hold with Voyages, a message said that accommodation at The Rock is extremely limited through to July 15 and that travellers should reconsider their dates if the wish to stay consecutive nights and are yet to book.
Says Martin Sisson: “The difficulty is that people check out at 10 o’clock and other people expect to check back in at 2 o’clock and we just can’t turn them over quickly enough.
“For us the issue is that there are no backpackers, they made up the majority of housekeeping staff.”
Mr Sisson says the hotel is also short three or four front desk workers to check in guests.
The CEO of Hospitality NT, Alex Bruce, says that this recent burst of tourists to Central Australia has shone a light on a problem that has been brewing since the industry came back online in August 2020.
“We’ve lost more and more of the working holiday maker visa holders and other non-Australians who were working in our industry.
“With the international borders being closed they’re not being replaced.”
He estimates that there are 2000 jobs that need filling across the Territory,“but it’s worse in regional and remote areas”.
At the Alice Springs Brewing Co, Kyle Pearson says that they’ve become “busy overnight,” and have been left shorthanded.
Like Mr Sisson, he says that a void has been left by international workers that will be hard to fill.
Mr Pearson also says that some international workers are actually leaving Alice Springs as travel restrictions ease around the country: “We’ve got a lot of staff who are leaving us soon, moving on.
“I think if things open up, tourists can come in but also staff can go out.”
The brewer, who was hoping to expand the hours of the venue this season, says that the way these workers were treated by Australian governments was the beginning of this problem: “If I’m being honest, I think it’s largely because of the lack of support that was given to visa workers throughout Covid. There was just nothing for them, we sent them all home.
“Especially in remote areas, people on temporary visas do a lot of the heavy lifting, they do a lot of the jobs that nobody else wants to do.
“We sent them all home and now we’re probably stuffed.”
For Fillipo Gelada, who’s business Outback Elite Tours delivers tour packages in English, Italian and Spanish, the hunt for good tour guides is a constant, but coming out of Covid, he has found it even more difficult than usual.
“A lot of tour guides who were working before Covid happened, they moved to other jobs during the Covid period. So what’s happening at the moment is most of them won’t come back to do the same job,” says Mr Gelada.
Mr Bruce says that Hospitality NT has been working closely with government on campaigns to engage with interstate and local people who could fill the jobs needed.
One example is the “Hospitality Wants You” campaign that was recently launched to encourage Territorians to perhaps get a second job in order to get some extra cash and support the industry.
Mr Bruce says that the most acutely required workers are housekeepers and kitchen staff, jobs that in the past have been filled by working visa holders and the organisation is also working with the government to see “if there are any avenues to bring in targeted Covid safe workers from some of the Pacific Island nations, where Covid isn’t flaring up”.
Such a program would not be dissimilar to what is being done to help the agricultural industry.
Last week another scheme was announced by the NT Government to give financial incentive worth $745,000 to people in Australia to come and work in the Territory’s melon farms.
That would top up pay checks with a bonus known as “Melon Money” which is benefitting mostly the Top End.
Mr Bruce says the tourism industry “wants Melon Money too,” but that the problem may be more difficult than that of the melon farmers.
“We are talking with the Territory government on what sort of incentives for locals and interstate workers would be attractive to get them to come work in our industry this year.”
Across the industry, the work of travellers is being laid bare. Mr Sisson from Aurora Alice Springs says it is time to appreciate the role of these people in our places of leisure:
“It’s brilliant that people are now travelling around the country, but we just can’t provide the service that we should be able to do.
“It’s bizarre, but it just goes to show how much the backpackers actually did.”
PHOTO at top: Film stars or fruit pickers? NT Government promotion seeking workers on farms.
The Ayers Rock Resort is operating only three of its five hotels.
A spokesperson says: “With the upcoming opening of Desert Gardens hotel at the end of June, and new experiences such as the Gallery of Central Australia opening, and the Tali Wiru dune top dinner commencing, we are seeing growing interest by Australian travellers in coming to explore the spiritual heart of Australia.
“As such, we are now actively looking to recruit staff which is great news for the tourism industry after a challenging 12 months.”