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How Port Douglas went from US presidents and celebs to ghost town

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It was once a holiday destination favoured by US presidents and Hollywood starlets, but Port Douglas in far north Queensland has turned into a ghost town due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

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Usually the small seaside town’s population of 4000 quadruples over the coming months as Victorian and New South Wales tourists flock to the north to escape the southern winter.

Now, the once-bustling streets are deserted, nearly all of the 60-plus restaurants and cafes are closed and Four Mile Beach — where US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama once strolled — is eerily quiet.

The situation has sparked a plea from businesses and tourism operators to relax domestic border restrictions by July and to increase the Queensland Government’s 50km recreation limit to 100km, to allow visitors from Cairns.

CEO of Tourism Port Douglas Daintree Tara Bennett said the town’s situation was grave.

“It’s really grim for everyone in our community.”

“We are 80 per cent reliant on tourism so this is affecting everyone,” Bennett said.

“Restaurants and cafes have made every effort to pivot and find a way to keep trading but the reality is there are only 4000 people living in Port Douglas and there are 60 eateries available.

“We just don’t have the population volume to sustain that. There are a number that are providing takeaway options but most have had to go into complete hibernation.”

Celebrity haunt temporarily shuts doors

Rhys Bawden owns the Salsa Bar and Grill near the Port Douglas waterfront, which has just marked its 25th anniversary.

Dozens of plates signed by the likes of Hollywood stars including Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson adorn the walls, while singers Ed Sheeran and Kylie Minogue have also dropped in for a meal.

Now, the cafe-style tables and chairs are stacked inside and the lights are off.

“We had the Ansett collapse, we’ve had cyclones, but nothing that has wiped the whole town in a fell swoop,” Bawden said.

“We have no idea when we are going to open up again — whether it’s going to be two weeks or four months and that’s the biggest uncertainty.

“That’s the hardest thing, trying to understand how long this is going for and when we can rebuild our businesses and start again.”

Bawden said 90 per cent of his 30 staff were eligible for the Federal Government’s JobKeeper program.

“That has just been awesome. It’s very hard to find staff up here and very hard to get staff to come to this area, so being able to pay those staff and retain those staff has been a massive advantage for us,” he said.

Reef tourism operators hit hard

Steve Edmonson from Sailaway Reef and Island Tours normally takes 20,000 tourists out on the water to experience the Great Barrier Reef each year.

Now, his four yachts are tied up at the local marina but, thanks to the Federal Government’s JobKeeper program, he has been able to retain his 19 staff who have just returned for a few hours to clean down the boats.

“We have been massively affected. From March 23, we were forced to stop operation basically, ” Edmonson said.

“We had to refund 30 to 40 per cent of all of our forward bookings.”

Edmonson said it was critical that border restrictions in Australia lift by July, to ensure the future of the town.

“We need domestic travel and access — Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney from July, August, September,” he said.

Edmonson suggested tourists could sign up to the Federal Government’s COVIDSafe app as a condition of travel.

“It could form part of a control measure that keeps travel achievable and mark a return to some normal level of experience and confidence,” he said.

Borders need to open up by July

Meanwhile, Port Douglas and Daintree Tourism wants the Queensland Government to relax the new recreation rule, which allows people to take short drives and visit shops and parks within 50km of their home.

“The easing of travel restrictions is welcome but regional centres need additional consideration,” Bennett said.

“Cairns is 67km away and Mareeba to our west is similar so unfortunately those bigger centres still can’t come and visit our area.”

There are four active cases of coronavirus in the Cairns region.

The Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, has said that any moves to reopen the domestic tourism market would be “negligent”.

“I know that tourism operators are struggling, Cairns is a tourism industry mega-centre,” Palaszczuk said.

“We can’t open up tourism. It would be absolutely negligent to open up tourism when we are flattening the curve.

“We don’t want to give any false sense of hope [to people] that suddenly there are going to be planes flying in the sky in the next two months and tourism is going to be back to normal because we are in a world pandemic.”

– ABC / Kristy Sexton-McGrath

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