One of the longest established coach tour companies in NSW has pleaded with the federal government to extend its airline rescue package to other sectors, or risk permanent damage to Australia’s fourth largest export.
Blue Mountains NSW-based tour company Fantastic Aussie Tours (FAT) managing director Jason Cronshaw questions why airlines received a wage subsidy beyond JobKeeper, but other transport tour operators such as coach and dive companies did not.
“Why is the government pulling the rug from under the fourth largest export earner for Australia (tourism) at this stage?” Mr. Cronshaw asked.
Coach companies like Fantastic Aussie Tours are now unable to run vehicles because they have haemorrhaged staff and lost value and expertise from their teams, he says.
FAT has operated the Blue Mountains Explorer Bus fleet of double-decker red buses around Katoomba and Leura since 1986 and conducted sightseeing tours and charters around Australia for two generations since 1974.
It was forced to close its Blue Mountains Explorer Bus sightseeing run for 27 days between Dec 2019 – Jan 2020, because of the bushfires and reported a 60 per cent drop in passengers between that December and February 2020.
Then, during the weekend of March 14-15 2020, numbers plummeted another 50 per cent almost overnight because of Coronavirus.
Four days later [March 19], Explorer Bus services were slashed from 15 per day to seven – from 2.5 drivers per day to one.
Today, FAT’s distinctive double-decker fleet runs only on Saturdays and holidays, and Cronshaw is considering parking it permanently if business does not improve after Easter.
“We’ve gone from 65,000 people a year on the red buses to half a dozen on a Saturday. We’re only running it to keep a presence,” he said.
Deluge of damage
Meanwhile parent company FAT has suffered an 85 per cent drop in charter work and forward cancellations from schools, corporates and other group travel until October. The average weekly driver roster of 350 hours has dropped to 78.
Cronshaw says the ‘deluge of damage’ to the coach industry was already underway: he knew of one company that pre-COVID carried thousands of passengers to the Blue Mountains that was now in liquidation and trying to sell 23 coaches.
Cronshaw and operations director Darrell Booth have already sold one of the company’s retro Ansett Clipper tour buses plus two other vehicles, and they have put two double-decker Explorer Buses on the market.
The liquidation of coach fleets would see vehicle values plummet and devastating flow-on to other sectors such as manufacturing, says Cronshaw.
“These companies about to go broke will put unsustainable prices to the market and further affect sustainable businesses,” he said.
Darrell Booth is worried that like the dive boat industry, “…it’s not only the millions of dollars’ worth of assets in vehicles, there’s the loss of people, skills and qualifications that, once gone, takes enormous time and cost to rebuild in a business.”
Numerous bus and coach drivers have already left the tourism industry for more reliable work, he says.
FAT, which prided itself on its long-term experienced employees, is already seeing staff looking for options now JobKeeper is coming to an end.