Tourism Council of WA calls for backpackers to be allowed extra year to fill job shortages

The West Australian
Backpackers James Kelly and Alessia Dutto near their hostel in Northbridge.
Backpackers James Kelly and Alessia Dutto near their hostel in Northbridge. Credit: Ross Swanborough/The West Australian

Backpackers currently in Western Australia should be permitted to extend their visas for a further year to avoid exacerbating a growing shortage of hospitality workers.

That is the view of Tourism Council WA, which has called on the Federal Government to consider the 12-month extension to visas ahead of what is predicted to be a bumper summer holiday season for regional towns across the State.

Prior to coronavirus, there were around 14,000 backpackers in the State at any given time.

Italian backpacker Alessia Dutto during her WA travels
Italian backpacker Alessia Dutto during her WA travels Credit: Alessia Dutto/Supplied

But Tourism Council WA chief executive Evan Hall estimates those numbers have now dwindled to between 5000 and 6000, with an additional 1000 to 2000 leaving each month as their visas expire.

“A 12-month visa extension would allow backpackers to continue to work in tourism businesses through the Christmas period and into the 2021 season in the North West,” Mr Hall said.

“Backpackers are leaving Western Australia as their visas expire, or to travel to open States such as South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland. This is all one-way traffic.

“There is a concern that by the busy summer holidays, there won’t be enough backpackers remaining to service visitors in regional WA.”

Mr Hall said WA’s regional areas were heavily reliant on backpackers during peak periods when some towns triple or even quadruple in population, leaving the local workforce overwhelmed.

“Backpackers are essential to WA’s tourism workforce, as they are keen to move around WA to wherever they are needed,” Mr Hall said.

“They fill vacancies allowing businesses to service guests in peak periods and provide respite to operators who are otherwise working for months on end without a break.”

He said a lack of workers meant some regional businesses had been forced to slash operating hours or restrict the number of bookings they took, limiting their ability to cash in on WA’s boom in domestic tourism.

Italian backpacker Alessia Dutto during her farm work.
Italian backpacker Alessia Dutto during her farm work. Credit: Supplied: Alessia Dutto

Tourism Minister Paul Papalia said, “I’ve been to the Kimberley, Pilbara, Mid West and Wheatbelt (and) there are work opportunities everywhere in hospitality and agriculture and other sectors like retail.”

“People in the city, as time goes by and if you’re finding yourself without options for work, there are plenty of work opportunities in places which are pretty attractive right now and you have it all to yourself.”

Tourism Minister Paul Papalia.
Tourism Minister Paul Papalia. Credit: Michael Wilson/The West Australian

Premier Mark McGowan has requested the Federal Government consider allowing JobSeeker recipients to maintain their full welfare payments while working in agriculture but Mr Papalia said a similar measure was not necessary for hospitality workers.

“My view is that some of the agricultural work they need workers for is particularly challenging and does need a little bit more incentive,” he said.

“I’m pretty comfortable that going to work in hospitality in some of our magnificent tourism destinations is not an onerous task, and not a hard ask and not a hard sell, so I don’t agree that we need to further incentivize that.”

Italian backpacker James Kelly during his travels.
Italian backpacker James Kelly during his travels. Credit: Supplied: Alessia Dutto

UK backpacker James Kelly arrived in WA in February — one month prior to the introduction of coronavirus restrictions — and said he would jump at the opportunity to extend his visa, even if it meant working in a regional pub.

Alessia Dutto — from Italy — intends to extend her working holiday visa for another year through the existing system after completing a period of farm work but said she had no doubt fellow backpackers at the end of their allowed stays would welcome the chance to remain in Australia for another year.

The Federal Government has already announced changes to backpacker visas to allow those working in critical sectors such as agriculture, health care and aged care to prolong their visits.

In WA, only working holiday makers in existing hospitality jobs north of the Tropic of Capricorn can apply for an extension.

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge said there was an ongoing inquiry into the working holiday maker program.