On the frontline of virus tourism hit

The Global Ballooning team. Front from left: Georgia Croft, Despina Karatzias, Kiff Saunders. From back left: Grega Trcek, Nick Hambly, Barry Ward, Steve Buckley, Daniel Huang, Sanshiro Ishihara, Scarlett Saunders. 205812 Picture: ROB CAREW

A Yarra Valley-based hot air balloon company is among those bearing the brunt of decreased visitor numbers as a result of the coronavirus.

Global Ballooning is an award-winning hot air balloon company that provides daily sunrise flights over Melbourne and the Yarra Valley.

It traditionally flies over 8000 people over the Yarra Valley each year.

Owner Kiff Saunders said the company has put a lot of effort into Chinese tourism recently.

“We’re a very big part of the international marketing of this region. We have invested heavily in China over the past five years,” he said.

“That’s streamlining behind Tourism Australia marketing campaigns.

“It’s been very successful, basically now it would be half of our business is Chinese tourists coming in.”

Mr Saunders said that the sudden travel bans implemented as a result of the coronavirus “came as a real shock” during the company’s peak season.

“When the coronavirus hit about the 20 January period it started with the Chinese Government banning all group travel,” he said.

“That was a fairly significant impact on us immediately.”

“Then four or five days later, virtually at the beginning of the Chinese New Year on 26 January, the Australian Government placed a travel ban on all Chinese nationals coming to Australia.”

“Chinese New Year has traditionally been our peak period when we would fly 1800 people over that period and virtually it just shut the tap off.”

Mr Saunders said since the bans have been in place the company has been forced to send employed pilots back home, reduce staffing hours and remove casual shifts.

He also estimated a $1 million downturn in the business intermediately.

“For a small business this is the time of year that we make our profit that gets us through the whole year,” he said.

But Mr Saudners said his company is not alone, with many others in the tourism industry being impacted.

He said the situation was starting to become a mental health issue with many companies having to face the difficult task of cancelling shifts and letting staff go.

“It’s not all about the money, it’s about the fact you’re very attached to your staff,” Mr Saunders said.

“To have to tell people you no longer require them, it’s just a really tough thing to do.

“You spend a long time building your business and training your staff.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently flagged that the Federal Government will soon release a stimulus package in response to the coronavirus, however, the details of that package have not yet emerged.

It is understood the package will focus on hard-hit industries such as tourism and universities.

Casey MP and Speaker Tony Smith said the Federal Government initiated a Coronavirus Emergency Response Plan on 27 January, based on expert medical advice suggesting there was every indication the world would soon enter a pandemic phase.

Mr Smith said the Federal Government is aware of the impacts of this response on tourism and will provide assistance shortly.

“The COVID-19 virus has unfortunately impacted tourism around Australia, including in the Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges,” he said.

“The disease represents a very serious risk to the health of Australians. Accordingly, the Federal and State Governments are acting to limit the spread of the virus.

“That’s meant restricting the ability of tourists coming from certain countries, including China. These border control measures are constantly assessed and monitored.

“We’re very aware of the impact of the measures to control the virus. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer have said that the Government will shortly announce a response plan to lessen the impact of the virus on small businesses, including those in the tourism and agricultural sectors.”

Mr Saunders said that while the impact of the virus continued he hoped locals will help support small businesses like his.

“The vibrance of this country is based on small tourism operators going out there and running their businesses,” he said.

“If they go broke or can’t withstand this it will be a great loss to our community.

“All I can do is ask for the support of our local community to hopefully be very mindful of the pressure on small business owners and if nothing else, just reach out to check-in and see they are not suffering in silence.

“Ideally I would love to see a local community campaign to encourage friends, colleagues, businesses to get out and explore this remarkable region.”