Changes to working holiday schemes feared to hit Margaret River tourism, wine and hospitality hard

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times
Backpackers such as Julie Rajsarong, Gabriele Menuguzzo, Lena Lennertz and Robin Lambert are part of a crucial labour supply for the region’s key industries.
Camera IconBackpackers such as Julie Rajsarong, Gabriele Menuguzzo, Lena Lennertz and Robin Lambert are part of a crucial labour supply for the region’s key industries. Credit: Warren Hately

Feared changes to Australia’s Working Holiday Maker visa have stirred the region’s wine and hospitality sector amid concerns they could wipe out the supply of ready-to-work backpackers.

That crucial labour force has faced huge sustainability issues since the start of the pandemic and Tourism Council WA chief executive Evan Hall last week issued a stark warning about a key recommendation to dump the current system.

Currently, visitors from about 40 countries can extend their stays to three years in exchange for working in regional WA.

Mr Hall said working holidaymakers typically arrived on the East Coast and often took well over a year to reach WA.

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At the same time, overseas visitation to WA remained 40 per cent down on pre-COVID levels.

“A one-year cap would limit backpackers’ ability to travel to WA and work through seasonal tourism towns such as Exmouth, Broome, and Margaret River,” he said.

“Backpackers are essential to WA’s tourism workforce, as they are keen to move to tourism towns in peak seasons to work and experience what WA has to offer.”

The Commonwealth would now “undertake a detailed consultation and research process” before taking further action.

While Australia now had an improved agreement with the UK of benefit to the region, operators told the Times they needed more backpackers with fewer restrictions, not more.

Vineyards as well as cafes, pubs and restaurants across the Capes saw backpackers as a “critical” lifeline, according to Margaret River-Busselton Tourism Association chief executive Sharna Kearney.

Settlers Tavern owner Rob Gough said the region faced a “chronic” workforce shortage in key tourism and hospitality quarters as well as places to house them.

“This time last year was especially painful with worker shortages restricting our trade by up to 25 per cent,” he said.

“The Federal Government’s migration strategy is long overdue for an overhaul and extending holiday visas to three years without the requirement for farm work is a no-brainer.”

Ms Kearney said the extensions previously hadn’t helped the region much because work requirements were specific to northern WA and very remote areas.

The UK deal which eases restrictions around British working holiday visitors was a boon to those industries, though she predicted the wine sector would do it tough without better measures in place.

“Securing skilled tourism and hospitality workers has been much more difficult for our industry, despite attempts to streamline processes through Designation Area Migration Agreements and the like,” the chief said.

“It is good to see that the migration strategy acknowledges the complexity of the current system, and undertakes to address this.

“It will be critical for the tourism and hospitality industry to be thoroughly consulted in the definition of the ‘core’ and ‘essential’ occupation list, and the migration pathways available.”

Margaret River Wine Association chief executive Amanda Whiteland was unable to respond to inquiries by deadline.

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