Bondi View

Downunder backpackers in Covid limbo

Backpacker Jonas Funk is cleaning for free rent, because his regular job as a lifeguard has stopped due to Covid-19 restrictions. Photo: John Moyle

By JOHN MOYLE

In recent weeks we have seen the great Covid safety net fall into place for Job Seekers and Job Keepers while many hospitality workers and entertainers still fail to qualify.

There has also been much written about overseas students, who also do not qualify for any support, but little has been heard about a sector that contributes around $4bn per year to our economy.

With the exception of media outrage at the cluster of positive cases that experts say came from a large gathering of backpackers on Bondi Beach in early March, we have not heard much at all.

It is estimated that around 140,000 backpackers remain in the country for a variety of reasons, ranging from not being able to afford the exorbitant airfares to their home countries, to not wanting to return home to even worse situations.

The trouble is most backpackers work for a large period of the time that they are here and now most of that work has disappeared and for many things are now getting tough.

“Many of these young travellers go to work for a period of time in agriculture, helping farmers with harvest work, they then spend most of their earnings on travelling around Australia,” Paul McGrath, CEO, Youth Hostels Australia, a national not for profit organisation, said.

In 2018 backpacker total numbers were 606,000 with an average spend of $5295 and in Sydney accounted for 24 per cent of all visitor nights.

According to the Home Affairs Visit Visa Program Report in June 2019 there were 135,263 Working Holiday Makers in Australia on combinations of the Working Holiday Visa (417) and Work and Holiday Visa (462), with the majority of travellers coming from the UK, France, Germany, South Korea and Taiwan.

The USA, China, Chile, Spain and Argentina made up the greatest numbers on the Work and Holiday visa (462) program.

In Sydney, which accounted for 435,000 visitors in 2018 most of the backpacker hostels are centred around the inner city, with Potts Point being a traditional focal point with 20 registered backpacker hostels.

Bushfire recovery postponed
Christmas is traditionally the industry’s busy period, but that was marred this year with the bushfires that devastated much of the eastern seaboard.

“The bushfires had already affected us and the international media didn’t help by publishing maps showing the entire east coast on fire,” Caitlin Richards, owner/operator, Chili Blue Backpackers, Potts Point said.
“With Covid we saw a gradual drop-off, initially in early March and then the government closed the boarders and we saw a mass exodus at that point.”

Built in 1926 as a licensed boarding house, Chili Blue is one of the oldest hostels in the area and would normally house around 100 travellers, but are now down to under 20, most on reduced rents.

“These are mostly people who still have jobs and the others are being supported by families because they didn’t qualify for the flights home,” Caitlin Richards said.

Trip Advisor says that an average night stay in a Chili Blue dorm is $31 but this has now been dropped to $10 per night, with social distancing being observed.

Jonas Funk is a German national who has been in Australia since November and has been staying at Chili Blue for a month.

“Normally I am a lifeguard at Sydney Olympic Park but they closed everything because of Corona and since the middle of march I have not been able to work,” Jonas Funk, backpacker said. “Since then I have been working here cleaning for free accommodation.”

Jonas says that it is a “safe place” and that he and the other residents are “really aware of social distancing in the hostel and we keep the rules in mind.”

Right from the beginning of the outbreaks the Kings Cross Police have been proactive in getting Covid-19 safety rules to the hostel owners and guests.

“We do inspections and see how they are going with the numbers and are just trying to give them some ideas on how they can get through this period,” Senior Constable Sam Donni, Crime Protection Officer, Kings Cross Police said.

Sam Badans works for an industry body that is concerned with safety in hostels and also the welfare of the guests remaining.

“I run a large hostel in Sydney and some of those staying with us have been able to maintain jobs, primarily in the construction industry,” Sam Badans, Honorary Secretary, Backpackers Association NSW said.

While Sam works in inner Sydney his thoughts are also with the farmers, who, at this time of year, would be employing a large number of the backpackers.

“I had a phone call from the NSW Farmers magazine and they were researching an article on the shortfall of labour and what that means moving forward,” Sam Badens said.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is an international movement that is a rite-of-passage for many travellers.

“Normally we would have around 3,000 Woofers in Australia around this time but it is hard to know the number here at the moment,” Traci Wilson-Brown, Office Manager, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms said.

While travel restrictions means that no new ‘Woofers’ can enter Australia at the moment, Ms Wilson-Brown is eager to get the message out that because agriculture is an essential service and the prospective Woofers can travel to a host, especially if they are set up with accommodation that promotes social distancing.

“There are 800 to 900 hosts at the moment on our books and they are advertising all the time on our notice board,” Ms Wilson-Brown said.

Former Los Angeles resident Marisa Babjac met her mid-life crisis head on when she sold her home and hit the road.

After a number of years travelling in South America she made her way to Sydney where she booked into a Newtown hostel.

“There were six people in a room and about 200 people in the hostel and now there are about 30 people staying there,” Marisa Babjac said.

“It was really sad, every day there would be 10 to 15 kids coming in who had just lost their jobs and they didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to do.

“Their parents were thousands of miles away and they had all these dreams and I was just watching their dreams unravel.”

Marisa said goodbye to every one of the guests and then had to do a radical stock-take on her own situation.

“I realised that if someone in the hostel got sick then we would all get sick,” Marisa said.

Marisa is now waiting out the virus in a share house and after years of travelling has little money and fewer prospects of getting a job.

“Backpackers are people like everybody else; they are people who have come to Australia for a working holiday or to travel around and their plans have been changed, like everybody else,” Caitlin Richards said.