Thousands of Queenslanders face unemployment as end of JobKeeper wage subsidy program looms, dealing another major blow to tourism sector

Thousands of Cairns workers face losing their jobs as JobKeeper ends. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter) © Provided by ABC Health Thousands of Cairns workers face losing their jobs as JobKeeper ends. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

More than 8,000 people in Cairns are expected to lose their JobKeeper wage subsidy payments in coming days, in what is expected to be yet another major blow to Far North Queensland's tourism industry.

The federal government's welfare program ends on Sunday, despite calls for it to be extended.

The move marks the end of a wage subsidy that has buoyed businesses across the country during the coronavirus pandemic and put an estimated $1,000 in the pockets of about 1.54 million employees each fortnight.

Across Australia, some 500,000 businesses are bracing for the loss of the subsidy.

In Far North Queensland, the move is expected to leave thousands of recipients — many of them tourism workers — jobless.

With the drawcard of the Great Barrier Reef on Cairns' doorstep, the region has typically attracted interstate and international tourists, contributing to what was once an industry worth $3.5 billion a year.

'No-one knows what the future holds'

Cairns-based dive instructor Ty McCormack is a 20-year veteran of the industry and is among the thousands of JobKeeper casualties.

The professional diver has taken thousands of tourists to experience the depths of the Great Barrier Reef, but last week found himself out of a job, despite rave customer reviews on multiple websites.

"I got an initial phone call from one of my managers, and then a letter from the company, advising that redundancies were going to be implemented," Mr McCormack said.

"A few days after that, some of us got the letters that we were being made redundant.

"It's been an emotional sort of time. I'm very afraid actually, because you don't know what the future is going to hold for you."

Mr McCormack worked for one of Cairns' biggest reef boat operators, which is usually frequented by international tourists.

Up until Saturday, he had been averaging a few days a week at work — his days off subsidised by the JobKeeper payment.

At the age of 59, he is not sure what the future holds for an industry he is deeply passionate about.

"JobKeeper was basically getting the bills paid — it was making sure that we had food on the table, fuel in the car, that sort of thing," he said.

"It was a little bit of security. Now with JobKeeper being taken away and our jobs going with JobKeeper, no-one knows what the future holds.

"And there's a lot of people in my situation in Cairns."

'A lot more businesses will go under'

Andrea Cameron used to have a fleet of vehicles that would take busloads of mainly international tourists on day trips around the region.

The owner of Kuranda Day Tours was averaging around 42 tours a week, employed five staff and turned over about $1 million a year.

But with the end of JobKeeper, she now employs just one tour guide and has listed her home at tropical Port Douglas for sale.

"We have had to make some difficult decisions in order to survive, and one of those is that our home is going up for sale," Ms Cameron said.

"We sold a couple of our buses and we have one still sitting in our yard that's unregistered and uninsured."

She said her business had also been hit hard by the reduced hours of other tourism ventures she relied on as part of her tour, including the rainforest cableway Skyrail and the Kuranda Scenic Railway.

"I really would have loved to have seen some targeted support continue for the tourism industry, especially in our region, which is so dependent on international borders and visitors," she said.

"It is going to be scary.

"When we move into our next quiet season without the internationals and without JobKeeper, we're going to see a lot more businesses go under."

Tourism Tropical North Queensland CEO Mark Olsen said Easter bookings looked encouraging, with half-price flights due to start next month as part of a federal government tourism boost.

"We are hearing from our operators in Port Douglas that their average occupancy through Easter is 70-80 per cent," he said.

"Cairns is running at about 60-70 per cent already pre-booked for Easter."

Cairns Airport head of aviation Garry Porter said domestic arrival numbers had slowly returned to pre-COVID numbers.

"This month we are looking at 45,000 seats a week and in April we are jumping back to 65,000 to nearly 70,000 seats."

Thousands of Queenslanders face unemployment as end of JobKeeper wage subsidy program looms, dealing another major blow to tourism sector