ABC Radio National Breakfast

30 June 2023


Patricia Karvelas: ‘Come and say g'day.’ That's the message Australian tourism bosses are shopping around China this week. Overnight they launched a new ad campaign with Ruby the Roo in a bid to lure tourists back who haven't yet returned to those pre‑pandemic numbers. It comes as the government continues to push Beijing to loosen its trade restrictions on Australian products.


Senator Tim Ayres is the Assistant Minister for Trade and Tourism and our guest this morning in the studio with me. Welcome.


Tim Ayres, Assistant Trade Minister and Assistant Manufacturing Minister: It's really good to be here, Patricia, g'day.


Patricia Karvelas: It's exciting, isn't it, to be in the studio?


Assistant Minister: It is, really nice.


Patricia Karvelas: Especially when we talk about pre‑pandemic, it kind of reminds you why it matters. In 2019 China was Australia's primary source of tourists, around 1.4 million Chinese travellers visited the country, and contributed over $12 billion to the economy, which is enormous. Where are they now, post‑pandemic?


Assistant Minister: Well, international tourism has declined over the course of the pandemic. It's had a huge impact, particularly in our cities, yes, but particularly in the country towns that really rely upon international tourism.


Australians have travelled really hard and really well after the pandemic. So that's made a difference. But international tourism has fallen away. This campaign's starting in China, a market that does need to pick up. We do need to see improvement in the China market, but we do need to see improvement across the globe in terms of international tourism. This is part of the government's commitment to supporting the tourism industry to bring all that back. We're doing this now just as flights from China to Australia are starting to increase in capacity, so we're only still back to about half of the flights for tourists to come to Australia from China.


Patricia Karvelas: In February this year, Tourism Australia launched a ‘Don't Go Small, Go Australia’ campaign in China. What went wrong? Why this new campaign?


Assistant Minister: Well, this is a big attractive campaign that is aimed squarely at the hearts and the tourism options for Chinese tourists. It's a very attractive campaign.


Patricia Karvelas: So, you haven't answered my question. What went wrong with the last one?


Assistant Minister: Well, flights have only got to 50 per cent. There are still capacity issues there that need to be worked on, and we are determined to put our shoulder behind the wheel and support this industry through what's been a dramatic downturn, it's had a real human effect, and we are determined to support those jobs; 300,000 businesses in the sector that need the government’s support and need to return back to doing what they do best.


Patricia Karvelas: What are you saying to the airlines? Are they doing their part?


Assistant Minister: I think the airlines, it's been a clunky sort of start, hasn't it? A sort of stop and start process as the global airline industry has resumed activity, and you can see across the world the impact of that. It's had an impact on our national airline, it's had an impact on airlines more broadly, and they are slowly returning to normal, but it is absolutely a factor in slowing down growth in the sector.


Patricia Karvelas: So, what's the target for the campaign? Are you expecting the number of tourists to return to ‑ what was it ‑ 1.4 million travellers a year? How quickly can we reach those kinds of numbers?


Assistant Minister: Well, it's hard to say, Patricia, honestly. There's a lot of ground to make up here. The projections that the industry makes of what could be achieved by 2030, really a doubling of tourism numbers.


Patricia Karvelas: And when we talk about China, have the tensions which have become very pronounced over the last few years had an impact on those numbers?


Assistant Minister: Well, it's hard to say, but what the industry points to are more those capacity issues; flights returning to normal, conditions in China returning to normal, as people are ‑ as Chinese people are able to travel more ‑


Patricia Karvelas: Yes, because they had some very hard lockdowns.


Assistant Minister: ‑ very serious, and ongoing COVID restrictions that ‑ and as those lift, the capacity to travel as economic activity picks up inside China, the capacity to travel should lift. Those are the factors that industry's pointing to more than any of the tensions that have been evident in the relationship.


Patricia Karvelas: If we could look to trade, the other part of your portfolio now. Within weeks, China is expected to announce the outcome of its internal investigation in the tariffs on Australian barley; one of two cases that was taken to the World Trade Organization, do you have an update on that investigation?


Assistant Minister: No, I don't have an update on that investigation. There were two important dates that Trade Minister Don Farrell and Penny Wong, the Foreign Affairs Minister, announced: a three‑month window and a four‑month window. We are, as you say, approaching that three‑month window. The Trade Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister will have more to say about that as we get closer to those critical dates.


Don Farrell, the senior Minister in Trade made this really clear. We would always prefer to resolve these issues through discussion rather than litigation. We have, of course, left open the option for Australia to resume litigation, if we're not able to secure an outcome here in the national interest.


Patricia Karvelas: There are many other unofficial bans and blocks on Australian products, like lobster. We've seen some recent movement on timber and stone fruits. Will there be more?


Assistant Minister: Well, that's our hope. That's where all of our efforts, both in terms of our officials ‑


Patricia Karvelas: Is there any evidence that it's more than perhaps a hope?


Assistant Minister: ‑ yes, in terms of our official and ministerial engagement, it's all pointed in this direction, stabilising the relationship, removing impediments. There's been progress this year. There's been progress in terms of stone fruit, in terms of coal, timber products, a range of other products where we've loosened up, and we've seen a return to normal trade, but there is still a lot of work to do. Of course, after barley, I want to see progress, particularly for Australian wine and lobsters.


Patricia Karvelas: Let's just, before we hit the news, talk about trade negotiations with the European Union. After he returned from Brussels earlier this month, the Trade Minister, Don Farrell, said he would be happy to go back for another round of negotiations. Is he expected to go within the next fortnight?


Assistant Minister: Yeah, I think it's likely that there will be a return to ministerial-level negotiations. But I want to make it really clear from the Australian perspective, this is an important agreement for Australia, 400 million people. It's important commercially, economically, important strategically, but this is not a deal at any cost.


We must secure as part of this deal commercially meaningful access, particularly for our agricultural sector. This is a sector that's been very hard to access for Australian farmers, and Don Farrell and the government have made it very clear this is not a deal at any cost. We need to see ‑‑


Patricia Karvelas: Okay, I understand all that.


Assistant Minister: ‑ we need to see improvement in those sectors.


Patricia Karvelas: But you're telling me that the ministers will meet again?


Assistant Minister: I believe so, and we'll wait to see, we'll wait ‑


Patricia Karvelas: Because he walked away, and so there's a reengagement, you're telling me about?


Assistant Minister: We'll wait to see how much progress is made in order to secure that outcome. It would be good if we can return to ministerial-level negotiations there, but there has to be a very clear indication on the European side that we're going to make commercially meaningful access in terms of agriculture.


Patricia Karvelas: It's been very, very hard to do in the past, let's see.


Assistant Minister: It really has.


Patricia Karvelas: Senator, thank you.


Assistant Minister: Thank you.


Patricia Karvelas: Senator Tim Ayres is Assistant Minister for Trade and Tourism, joining us here on Radio National.