On Wednesday 29 April, I joined the Tourism and Transport Forum to discuss how Sydney has dealt with the COVID-19 Public Health Crisis, and how our city will recover.
This was my full speech to the forum.
These are indeed unprecedented times that are bringing enormous challenges across all sectors of our community.
It is heart-breaking to have the people of this outdoor, gregarious, lively city locked into their homes.
It’s heart-breaking to see the effects this lock-down is having on the most vulnerable people in our community, and it’s heart-breaking to see the effects it is having on our business community – especially on our small businesses, education, cultural, hospitality and tourism sectors.
We know the City of Sydney is the heart of the state’s tourism, education and cultural sectors, and we know those sectors are really hurting. People all around the world are staying home, facilities are closing, and opportunities to work are rapidly diminishing.
We have tried to provide financial support for those who have missed out on current State and Federal relief through our program of new grants and funding for small business, creatives and community services. We want to support our artists through this period and to ensure they’re ready for the renaissance when we’re able to move past coronavirus.
It should now be the goal of every level of government to keep tenants in buildings and staff on the books, so that when the crisis passes, the doors can open once more.
But nothing would be worse for businesses if they were forced to shut the doors again, because of another outbreak of the virus, so we have to be very careful about opening up again and aim to eradicate it entirely from our shores and keep it from coming back.
How will Sydney respond to what is an unprecedented threat to our way of life – socially, culturally and economically?
Despite the initial mad scramble for toilet paper and pasta in the early days of the lock-down, I sense that people accept the fact that we’re all in this together - business, government and society more broadly.
As the crisis has evolved, communities are showing each other real kindness; checking in on neighbours’ wellbeing, offering help, having meaningful contact with each other, even if it’s by phone, FaceTime or other virtual tools.
People appreciate and value the doctors, nurses and healthcare working looking after people falling ill from the virus, the carers looking after our elderly, the teachers who continue to look after children and the frontline workers keeping us safe through this crisis, including our , City staff picking up rubbish and cleaning streets.
I hope that the pandemic makes us better communicators, more respectful of each other and appreciative of what we have, and more supportive of the most vulnerable in our community.
However, I am concerned about the mental health impacts of keeping people in their homes with minimal real social contact over the longer term.
We are also appreciating our parks. Our communities, particularly in the densely-populated inner-city, understand how important it is to have access to open space and parks. At the City, we have long invested in creating and upgrading parks. I hope that governments and developers register this importance and commit to the protection and creation of precious public space in the future.
There is ample evidence to show that the ability to see trees and green spaces has a positive effect on people’s mental and physical health which it’s vital to maintain, especially at this time. So our investment in new parks, and upgrading existing parks, is paying dividends for our community during this time.
Arts, entertainment, events were first sectors affected by the Covid-19 restrictions – the whole sector was forced to shut down overnight. ABS data now shows that less than half of the companies operating in January were operating in March.
This is a sector that contributes $11.7 billion to GDP, so it was surprising that there was not more support provided by State and Federal governments early in the crisis.
Employment in the arts industry is by its nature a fragile, job-to-job or gig-by-gig basis, which has made it hard to navigate the JobSeeker rules and can limit eligibility for JobKeeper.
Yet, even though many of our artists are not included in the Federal Government’s support package, they have not forgotten us. Artists and performers rallied during the recent bushfires, donating their talents and time to raising funds and providing joy and hope where it was most needed. They continue to entertain us streaming concerts, playreadings, standup up comedy into our homes with little or no reward.
We will look to our artists and performers to help mark and celebrate the end of this crisis. Our cultural sector will be essential for the recovery of tourism and hospitality when spatial distancing restrictions are finally removed. Yet these restrictions may last the longest for theatres, cinemas and other cultural venues. These venues will only reopen if their tenants survive. Even then, reopening will require much planning. It will also require the survival of their tenants organisations , and the survival of theIt won’t simply be a matter of sweeping the stage, switching on the lights and putting on costumes.
It has been an incredibly tough time for our retailers, services and hospitality providers. Some businesses have shown great resilience and innovation by adapting their business models. Some are going online, and some are flipping production entirely, like the gin distilleries now making and selling artisanal hand sanitiser!
The City has have developed a small business grant program to fund such adaptation and reinvention, but there’s no denying we’ll all have to work incredibly hard to support small businesses now and in the wake of the crisis.
However, Westpac has warned that Victoria and NSW will be the worst hit of the states because of our reliance on tourism and education, and has warned of an 11 per cent unemployment rate by the end of June.
Perhaps we need to further explore new business models and to re-examine the so-called “gig economy” which has left so many people stranded with-out income or support.
Above all, we need to ensure a green recovery where we accept the realities and responsibilities imposed on us by climate change and work actively to meet them.
Can we bounce back and how quickly? Are there lessons learned from SARS, GFC and other global disruptions?
This pandemic in incomparable to other global disruptions we have had in living memory, due to its global nature and the scale of the response to combat the spread of the virus – and of course the economic impact which we have not seen anything the likes of since the great depression.
Of course we can bounce back, but how quickly depends on how and when restrictions are relaxed and, of course, for our international tourism market - the situation in other countries.
The long term risks to the economy from removing restrictions too soon are far greater over the long term than the current lockdown. If we see a period of rolling shut downs, due to re-emerging outbreaks of the virus, the impact to the economy will be even more far reaching and longer term.
I also think that it is still to early to know what we bounce back to – what a post-covid world looks like in terms of our economy. I think it will look very different, driven by international health and potentially geo-political variables that we don’t yet understand. The Federal Government is likely to look at opening up some sectors of the economy sooner than others, and this will create challenges.
Our keen support of start-ups and the small business sector generally has helped ensure Sydney has a strong culture of innovation that we will sorely need when the lock-down phase is over.
What will be the main challenges we face in Tourism, Transport, Business Events and Arts – how will Sydney evolve in these sectors as a result of this crisis?
The Tourism and Business Events sectors will almost certainly face longer term challenges with ongoing restrictions on international travel. Even if we manage to control and even eradicate the virus, we won’t want to risk it being imported again. This means our borders will remain closed until these risks can be dealt with. We could allow inbound tourism from countries who have also succeeded in bringing the virus under control, or perhaps by imposing strict quarantine on new arrivals.
However, Australians are likely not to be leaving the country either, so tourism is likely to have an almost exclusively domestic focus for the next 1-2 years.
With the revitalisation of CBD from projects such as light rail on George Street, we are in a great position to attract domestic tourists back to the city.
The pandemic has provided the stimulus for many businesses and organisations to facilitate people to work from home, and I imagine many will continue to work, at least part time, from home when the crisis passes. This will free up space on our roads and crowded public transport.
For those who need to drive during this time, particularly our essential workers, the City has made it easy for them to drive to work by providing free parking permits, access to our Goulburn Street and Kings Cross parking centres and by reducing the number of parking infringements issued.
Cycling has already noticeably increased, and to meet that rise, we have increased our free safe cycling training to help those who have taken up riding for the first time. We have Bikewise instructors on hand to provide a bicycle safety check, practice scenarios to help riders navigate on-street traffic and plan their trips. These are skills that will be useful long after the pandemic is over.
Public transport ridership and the congested traffic will return to Sydney, but hopefully as many people have experienced just how easy and enjoyable walking and riding to work is during this period, they’ll choose to stick to it.
In relation to arts, we have worked for over a decade to support Sydney’s cultural scene and night time economy. Just as we saw real progress – with the State Government lifting the lock-out laws – many found themselves without work, or having to close their venues.
Retaining closed borders also present greater opportunities for Australian artists and performers. I understand the Sydney Festival is planning for an all-Australian Festival next year.
Is the city thinking about the recovery process once this is over and how that will evolve? What sorts of initiatives are you considering or putting in place?
Thankfully, 16 years of strong financial management and debt free budgets have positioned us well to respond to this emergency. The first step to recovery has been protecting the businesses and cultural life that are currently there. So, focus has been on supporting people through this crisis.
Our focus at the moment is developing a recovery plan to guide the next twelve months and also develop a medium term plan to restore the long term financial outlook for the city budget.
We will be talking to experts and the community and I will have more to say on this in coming months.
In the recovery phase, it will be a priority to work closely with the NSW Government to provide and support events and activities to encourage tourists – at least domestic tourists – back to Sydney.
Fortunately, not long before the virus struck, Sydney was chosen to host World Pride Day in 2023 – the first time this event will have been held in the southern hemisphere.
Deloittes reported that this event – which will be held in the week just after Mardi Gras – led to spectacular leaps in tourist numbers: a 50 per cent increase in New York, for example, and a doubling of numbers in Madrid.
Deloittes estimate its likely worth to Sydney as between $660 million and up to $845 million – which is something to make your sector smile.
And the City will continue with events such as Lunar New Year which last year brought 1.5 million visitors who spent almost $42 million in Sydney.
An Australia Council study release earlier this year found that domestic arts tourism was growing before the pandemic. Importantly arts tourists tend to travel further, stay longer and spend more. This presents real opportunities for Sydney. In 2018 Sydney was the most visited location for arts daytrips and only second to Melbourne for arts overnight stopovers.
Cultural tourism will present even more opportunities when our borders finally open. In 2017 the Australia Council found that cultural tourism accounted for r $17 billion across the country, or an impressive 60 per cent of the total international tourist spend.