Backpackers return to Queensland region to work and play after pandemic

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

English backpacker Daisy Herdman has spent the entire pandemic saving her money for the day when she can travel the world again.

So far she has fallen in love with Sydney, spent time in Noosa and has now arrived in Bundaberg ready for a job on a farm.

“I was thinking of coming to Australia and doing both at the same time – working and traveling,” she said.

“Living in Australia now is like freedom, absolute freedom.

“I have to do my agricultural work, 88 days, to get my second-year visa.

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

Backpacker Daisy Herdman is in Bundaberg to complete her 88 days of agricultural work and obtain her second-year visa.(ABC Wide Bay: Johanna Marie)

Despite the reopening of international borders to fully vaccinated working holidaymakers in December last year, backpackers have been slow to reach the regions.

Bundaberg Bunk Inn owner Kyle Myers said he has seen a significant increase in accommodation bookings over the past month.

“Our occupations have exploded, sort of back to pre-COVID levels, which is amazing to see,” he said.

“They move around, they see the beaches, they do the sites and see what’s going on 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.(Provided: Gnarly Surf Tours)

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

“It’s just a totally different dynamic than what the last two and a half years looked like.”

A man, dressed in a brown T-shirt, stands in the lobby of an inn.
Bundaberg hostel owner Kyle Myers said accommodation bookings from international travelers have increased over the past month.(ABC Wide Bay: Johanna Marie)

Since December, the Home Office has granted nearly 126,100 working holiday visas (WHMs).

More than 63,300 of them are in Australia, and another 75,000 overseas WHM visa holders can travel to Australia.

“Working holidaymakers make an important cultural and economic contribution to Australia, including through their role in addressing skills and labor shortages and creating employment in related industries and businesses,” said said a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

The momentum is building

Tour operators in the seaside town of Agnes Water, 120 kilometers north of Bundaberg, have also seen an influx of international tourists in recent weeks.

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

“We noticed a lot of backpackers getting off the buses, and we really liked that,” he explained.

“I’m doing a surf lesson right now, and I have two from Switzerland, I have two from Germany and a woman from Israel.”

A selfie of surfers at the beach with their surf instructor.
Lorenzo Benedetto (front) with surfing students from Switzerland, Germany and Israel.(Provided: Gnarly Surf 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 to 790,380 for the same month in 2019.

But the number of foreign visitors staying a year or more appears to be rebounding, with 60,550 long-term arrivals in June compared to 76,870 in 2019.

Backpackers back on farms

German backpacker Paul Schempp arrived in Bundaberg almost three weeks ago and started working on a lettuce farm.

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

“We get up at 1:30 a.m., but the working atmosphere is good, all the workers are nice to each other and it’s nice. I like that.”

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

“All the backpacker stuff, I did it,” he said.

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

Bree Grima, chief executive of Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers, said the farming industry was delighted to see backpackers taking up jobs on farms.

“We’ve definitely seen a slight increase in the number of working holidaymakers passing through the area,” 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 solving labor shortages.

“As for small farms that might need less than 10 workers for a short time,” she said.

“We are still extremely dependent on these working holiday visa holders, and we know that many of them have been granted, so we look forward to these people choosing this option.”

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