Backpackers return to regional Queensland for work and play post-pandemic

Foreign accents are again echoing through the dormitories of regional Queensland hostels, as tourism operators and the agriculture industry celebrate the return of international travellers.

English backpacker Daisy Herdman spent the entire pandemic saving her money for the day she would be able to travel the world again.

So far, she’s fallen in love with Sydney, enjoyed some time in Noosa, and has now arrived in Bundaberg ready to take up a job on a farm.

“I thought I’ll come to Australia and do both at the same time — work and travel,” she said.

“Living in Australia now it’s just like freedom, absolute freedom.

“I need to do my farm work, 88 days of it, in order to get my second-year visa.

“Bundaberg seems like a convenient place to come and it’s lovely.”

A young woman, wearing a pink tee-shirt, holding a gray surfboard.
Backpacker Daisy Herdman is in Bundaberg to complete her 88 days of farm work and secure her second-year visa.(ABC Wide Bay: Johanna Marie)

Despite international borders reopening to fully vaccinated working holiday-makers in December last year, backpackers have been slow to travel to regional areas.

The owner of Bundaberg’s Bunk Inn hostel, Kyle Myers, said he had seen a major uptake in accommodation bookings in the past month.

“Our occupancies have gone through the roof, sort of back to pre-COVID levels, which is amazing to see,” he said.

“They are moving around, they’re seeing the beaches, they’re doing the sites, and seeing what’s happening around the place.

Four young women, holding bright pink surfboards, on the beach at Agnes Water.
Travelers from Switzerland and Israel learn to surf at Agnes Water.(Supplied: Gnarly Surfing Tours)

“It’s great seeing people back in beds and seeing them all interacting together, organising their little trips and stuff around the place as well.

“It’s just a totally different dynamic to what the past two-and-a-half years has looked like.”

A man wearing a brown tee-shirt stands in a hostel foyer.
Bundaberg hostel owner Kyle Myers says accommodation bookings from international travelers have surged in the past month.(ABC Wide Bay: Johanna Marie)

Since December, the Department of Home Affairs has granted almost 126,100 working holiday maker (WHM) visas.

More than 63,300 of those are in Australia, with another 75,000 WHM visa holders offshore who can travel to Australia.

“Working holiday-makers provide an important cultural and economic contribution to Australia, including through their role in filling skills and labor gaps and job creation in associated industries and businesses,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs.

Momentum is building

Tourism operators in the beachside town of Agnes Water, 120 kilometers north of Bundaberg, have also experienced an influx of international tourists in recent weeks.

Lorenzo Benedetto, owner of Gnarly Surfing Tours, said bus services from Brisbane and Cairns into Agnes Water had only resumed last month after more than two years.

“We’ve noticed a lot of backpackers are getting off the buses, and it’s been really good for us,” he explained.

“I’m doing a surf lesson right now in fact, and I’ve got two from Switzerland, I’ve got two from Germany, and one woman from Israel.”

A selfie of surfers at the beach with their surf instructor.
Lorenzo Benedetto (front) with surf students from Switzerland, Germany, and Israel.(Supplied: Gnarly Surfing Tours)

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of short-term visitors arriving in Australia is far from pre-pandemic levels, with 325,680 arrivals in July compared with 790,380 for the same month in 2019.

But the number of overseas visitors staying one year or longer appears to be bouncing back, with 60,550 long-term arrivals in June compared with 76,870 in 2019.

Backpackers back on farms

German backpacker Paul Schempp came to Bundaberg almost three weeks ago and began working on a lettuce farm.

“My motivation is to get the 88 farm days done and my second-year visa, but also to gain new experience,” he said.

“We get up at 1.30 in the morning, but the work atmosphere is good, all the workers are friendly to each other and it’s nice. I like it.”

He has already spent six months exploring the Whitsundays, the Great Barrier Reef, and K’gari (Fraser Island).

“All the backpacker stuff, I’ve done it,” he said.

A young man, wearing blue boardshorts, goggles and a mask gives the thumbs up among coral.
German backpacker Paul Schempp has been exploring Australia for six months.(Supplied: Paul Schempp)

Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers chief executive Bree Grima said the agriculture industry was pleased to see backpackers taking up jobs on farms.

“We definitely have seen a slight increase in the number of working holiday-makers coming through the region,” she said.

Ms Grima said the additional 75,000 WHM visa holders who had not yet traveled to Australia could make a major difference in addressing workforce shortages.

“When it comes down to the smaller farms that perhaps might need less than 10 workers for a short period of time,” she said.

“We are still incredibly reliant on those working holiday-maker visa holders, and we know quite a few have been granted, so we’re looking forward to those people taking up that option.”

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