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Backpackers flock back, but housing crisis hampers efforts to recruit staff

Key points

  • Backpackers are returning to Australia in greater numbers after years of lockdowns. 
  • Businesses on Victoria’s Surf Coast are hoping to attract backpackers to fill vacant jobs. 
  • Tourism groups say the lack of affordable housing is still a major hurdle in attracting workers. 

International backpackers are flocking back to Australia to work after disappearing for much of the pandemic, but businesses say a lack of affordable housing makes it hard to recruit them.

About 116,100 working holidaymakers arrived in the country over the past year, while only 1695 arrived in 2021, according to data from the Department of Home Affairs. In 2019, before the pandemic, 308,400 working tourists arrived, according to Tourism Australia.

Working holidaymakers, which includes backpackers, are returning to Australia in greater numbers. Credit:Tanya Lake

The return of international workers, who make a significant contribution to the hospitality and tourism labour force, comes after more than two years of border closures and travel restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19.

A department spokesman said the federal government recognised working holidaymakers made an important cultural and economic contribution to Australia, which included filling skills and labour gaps.

But tourism industry leaders say a severe lack of affordable housing in regional Victoria had hampered efforts to attract more staff over the past two years.

An increasing population in regional Victoria, more people buying holiday homes and the proliferation of short-stay sites such as Airbnb, are factors that have contributed to rental shortages.

Housing in regional areas, including Victoria’s Surf Coast, has become increasingly scarce. Credit:Paul Jones

Surf Coast Shire Mayor Liz Pattison said international border closures last summer left many businesses unable to attract and retain staff.

“We’ve heard from colleagues in Queensland-based tourist hotspots that there are a few more international travellers about this year, and places like Lorne are hoping to attract them for summer 2022-23, to give businesses a much-needed boost,” she said.

However, she said there was growing recognition that the lack of affordable homes was an issue plaguing the region year-round.

Victorian Tourism Industry Council chief executive Felicia Mariani said the sector had relied heavily on backpackers and international students since the 1990s to fill workforce shortages.

“We’ve just masked the problem with an imported workforce,” she said.

Mariani urged employers to look at ways of attracting a more diverse workforce, including recruiting more mature-age workers.

But she insisted housing remained an intractable problem.

“The big issue is housing, particularly in regional areas. Even if businesses can find workers out there, they can’t find long-term rental housing.”

Kimberley Brown (second from right) has taken long-term leases for her staff at North Pier Hotel.Credit:Jason South

Some employers have resorted to leasing rental properties to house workers in regional Victoria, where the rental vacancy rate fell below 1 per cent earlier this year.

In Cowes on Phillip Island, North Pier Hotel general manager Kimberley Brown has secured eight long-term residential rental properties for 26 of her employees.

“I need another three houses to be comfortable going into summer that I’ll be able to secure enough staff and save enough staff from having to relocate,” she said.

Brown said many people had recently moved to Phillip Island permanently while others had bought holiday homes during lockdowns, which meant there were fewer houses on the long-term rental market.

She charges the employees $150 a week in rent, which includes bills.

“They’re usually people who are happy to relocate and work lots of hours, but they don’t have anywhere to live.”

However, Bass Coast Shire chief executive Ali Wastie said many small businesses lacked the means to lease residential properties to their workers.

Wastie, also the Alpine Resorts Victoria chair, said landlords could make more money on short-stay platforms than the long-term rental market.

Towns such as Lorne have been desperate to attract workers during the past year. Credit:Eddie Jim

“This is certainly the case for our alpine and coastal regions,” she said.

Wastie said the Bass Coast Shire, which includes Phillip Island and Inverloch, had more than 2000 registered short-stay properties.

The shire recently imposed a $300 fee for short-stay accommodation providers, but Wastie said this money went towards maintaining services such as waste rather than acting as a financial incentive for owners to put their homes on the long-term rental market.

The shire will start charging the fee from July.

The Great Ocean Road Coast and Parks Authority said it was working with traders, community members and councils to increase accommodation for seasonal workers in Lorne. It has offered five sites, with room for four people each, at the Lorne Foreshore Caravan Park to be used exclusively by seasonal workers this summer.

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