Travel industry struggles with demand as international travel ramps up amid staff shortage

Travel agents say COVID is making overseas travel more complicated than ever, but a severe workforce shortage means they cannot help everyone through the process.

“The level of service you need to provide each individual customer, to navigate COVID restrictions globally, is a really long and complicated process,” chief executive of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) Dean Long said.

“Unfortunately, [some agencies] are having to turn customers away because they just don’t have the ability to serve the number of requests that are needed.”

A travel agent on the NSW Mid North Coast said he had never seen as much demand.

“It has gone crazy. We have gone from basically a standstill to going 500 miles an hour,” Bellingen’s Windsong Travel owner James Cracknell said.

Man wearing a checked shirt sits at a desk, speaking on the phone.

James Cracknell’s workforce of five is down from 22.(Supplied: James Cracknell)

Mr Cracknell’s pre-pandemic workforce of 22 had been reduced to five, which is even lower than the sector-wide shortage of one-third of what is needed.

“We have advertised and advertised trying to get people back in the industry,” he said.

“We’re absolutely desperate and the whole industry is the same.”

Mr Cracknell said one option could be to expand Australia’s working holiday program from people up to 30 years old to those aged 50.

“That would be an easy solution, to bring out a whole different range of workers to fill the gaps while the industry recovers,” he said.

International airfares skyrocket

International passengers out of Australia jumped 270 per cent in the year leading up to March 30.

Mr Cracknell said higher prices for airfares were not deterring customers, despite being at levels he had not seen since he started in the industry in 1998.

“An average airfare to Europe at the moment is well over $3,000 if you want to travel in the next few months, so we are looking at the airlines obviously trying to make as much money [as possible],” he said.

It’s something Nicole Moore can relate to.

The Sawtell-based birth trauma specialist recently paid $4,000 to fly between Coffs Harbor and Germany for work in July.

“My profit margin is greatly reduced according to the extra expense,” she said.

“I think travel anxiety is real given what happened to so many people in the past two years, people getting stuck and all those things.

“[But] I don’t want to live a life of fear, I want to bring my work to the world. I don’t want my whole career to be held back.”

Mr Long was not surprised people still wanted to fly.

Man in a navy suit sits on a park bench looking at the camera.

Dean Long expects travelers will continue to pay for expensive airfares.(Supplied: Australian Federation of Travel Agents)

“Travel is sometimes there as a discretionary figure, but when you actually look at the figures for the past 20 years … 6 to 7 per cent of household income is spent on travel regardless of the economic conditions,” he said.

“It is what people want to spend their money on and we expect that to continue.”

He said the industry had struggled to keep up having lost more than a third of the sector’s workforce through the pandemic and called on the new federal government for measures to help the industry employ more people.

“At a time when traveling Australians need professional travel advice more than ever, we urgently need to address this skills and workforce shortage,” he said.

Australia’s Minister for Tourism, Senator Don Farrell, has been contacted for comment.