Tourists stay away from storm-battered Queensland

Dream holiday destination Queensland has a new nightmare. The flood waters have receded, the cyclone's fury is long spent — the welcome mat is out again. But tourists are staying away in droves.

"We saw all the floods and thought we might be in danger," said Ben Davis, 21, who's in Australia on a year-long work and holiday visa with his girlfriend, Danielle Hodgson.

The English couple planned a short jaunt to Sydney before heading to the tropical paradise of Australia's northeast coast. But one week has turned into six — and counting — as they watched first one, then a second natural disaster unfold in Queensland state and decided Sydney was a safer bet.

The sudden change of plans is a small example of a bigger problem for Queensland as it recovers from weeks of deadly flooding and from a massive cyclone.

The disasters have caused an abrupt image malfunction for the state, which includes some of the main drawcards in Australia's $40 billion a year tourism industry. Almost 6 million tourists visited Australia last year, and more than half of them went to Queensland, lured by Great Barrier Reef, thousands of miles of pristine beaches and year-round warm weather.

"The vast majority of the tourism businesses in the state have been completely untouched by the disasters. The problem is the phone has stopped ringing," said Anthony Hayes, the head of the government-funded promotional body Tourism Queensland.

Itinerary changes and trip cancellations have cut Queensland tourism revenue by an estimated $500 million since Christmas, said Daniel Gschwind, CEO of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council. Losses are still being assessed, but Gschwind expects that number to rise.

Tourism contributes $9.2 billion to the Queensland economy annually and provides more than 220,000 jobs.

Tourism officials say it is too early to say whether images of the disasters have affected the number of international visitors traveling to Australia. Industry workers and tourists themselves say many that are already in the country are avoiding Queensland.

Davis and Hodgson bought bus passes and planned to travel the popular east coast route through Queensland, stopping in Brisbane, Byron Bay and the Whitsunday Islands before looking for casual farm work in the fruit-growing region near Cairns. An extended stay in Sydney, Australia's most expensive city, almost ruined their entire trip when they had to shell out money for accommodation they hadn't planned for.

"We actually came really close to having no money, so we would have had to go home," Davis said. "I've only found a job just in time. Otherwise I was going to ring my dad and say 'Can you sort us a flight out home?'"

Davis, who is staying at a hostel in Sydney, said he knew others in a similar position, staying in Sydney or Melbourne, while waiting for damaged areas to clear up and get back to normal.

While many tourism businesses were able to reopen quickly after the floods and storm, damage to roads was deterring travelers, with fewer caravans and busloads of backpackers making their way along the coast, Gschwind said.

The town of Airlie Beach — gateway to the tropical Whitsunday Islands — virtually emptied of tourists as Cyclone Yasi bore down on Queensland early this month, said Anthony O'Rourke, owner of the Airlie Waterfront Backpackers. One staffer said she took 17 cancellations in one shift alone, he said.

The storm ended up hitting the coast nearly 200 miles (300 kilometers) north of Airlie Beach and the town suffered only minimal damage, with most tourism operations opening up again quickly after it passed.

But many operations were still struggling because "everybody was under the impression that the whole of Queensland was flooded and it was a no-go zone," Danielle Seymour, the marketing manager of regional group Tourism Whitsundays.

Hayes said initial reports reflected up to an 80 percent drop in booking rates in some places in Queensland compared to last year, and that small businesses with limited cash flow were suffering most, and had started cutting back on staff.

Other destinations, such as Sydney, have benefited from Queensland's problems.

"Since about mid-December we've been literally full every night and at capacity," said Robert Smith, owner of the Jackaroo Hostel in Sydney's King's Cross, a nightclub and backpacker district that is humming with activity. "It's been good for us but it's been bad for Queensland."

Guests have extended their stays, sometimes for weeks, due to changes in plans for Queensland trips, and the hostel has been turning away up to 15 guests per day, Smith said.

In recognition of the importance of the tourism industry, the Australian and Queensland governments have each contributed $5 million for a support package aimed at attracting visitors back to the state, though Gschwind said more help was needed.

He said word of mouth was one of the keys to convincing travelers that the state was open for business, and the Queensland tourism council was using social networks to help. It has created a Facebook page called "Take a Queensland Holiday" where visitors can post photographs and stories to show that Queensland destinations are in good shape and encouraging others to come.

For Davis and Hodgson, making a trip to Queensland may be back on the cards now that the disasters have passed but it is not the priority it once was.

"We'll probably go up there in two months time," Davis said. "We're enjoying Sydney, so it could have been worse, it's worked out OK."