Tour operator Mark Coulton had been out of reception for days, deep in a national park north of Katherine, when he drifted back into range and his phone blew up.

It was the middle of March — just a few months after his tourism business Sandrifter Safaris, offering bespoke guidance through the Top End’s natural wonders, accepted lucrative contracts with major travel operators.

2020 had begun with the busiest period in his company’s near decade-long lifetime and the good times prompted a flurry of spending.

“Being an owner-operator, that came out of my pocket, with the idea of it being paid off by November 2020 — everything being paid off, the vehicles, bus, trailer upgrades, all the new equipment and so on,” he said.

“Every day I’d wake up, have a coffee and there’d be 10, 15 bookings for one month, two months, five months, 12 months in advance.

“You’d just click ‘Accept’ — done.”

Then he got the news that coronavirus had arrived and it was about to prompt a mighty reversal of fortunes.

It was a line of tumbling dominoes: international and state borders going up, destinations closing, hundreds of thousands of dollars in bookings falling through.

“By the 20th of March, I was left standing in my kitchen going ‘Holy hell, how am I going to pay for this?’,” Mr Coulton said.

Cash handouts to explore your backyard

In June, the Northern Territory Government introduced a stimulus program intended to throw tourism operators like Mr Coulton a lifeline.

$5.2 million was tipped into a voucher scheme that offered Northern Territorians $200 of government funding, matched dollar-for-dollar, to explore their backyard.

People booked helicopter trips to remote pubs and hotel staycations.

By late September, the scheme had generated nearly $9 million in total gross sales related to the program, according to a Tourism NT spokesperson.

Tourism bodies in other jurisdictions were watching closely, and the scheme inspired localised spin-offs in Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia as well as two additional rounds in the NT.

“We’ve spent numerous marketing campaigns trying to attract the local dollar, and it’s a tough gig,” said Rachel Beaumont-Smith, a longtime operator who runs nightly cruises around the Darwin Harbour.

When the scheme came online, the local dollar flowed in, Ms Beaumont-Smith’s staff were kept on the books and locals were given a low-effort show as radiant sunsets were refracted across the Arafura Sea.

Tourism Top End said the trickle of bookings saved numerous local businesses from shuttering for good.

“Things that were quick and easy to book did very well out of the voucher scheme,” Ms Beaumont-Smith said.

Voucher spending ‘really sporadic’

But numerous operators have raised concerns the millions in sales have been spread unevenly throughout the sector.

“I think it’s absolutely obvious now that it’s been really sporadic — we haven’t had the same take-up for our tour operators, our four-wheel drive and our bus operators,” Ms Beaumont-Smith said.

Mr Coulton — who shared her concerns — claimed the scheme ultimately cost him money.

He said it yielded just one booking, which was outstripped by ongoing expenses like insurance, as well as money tipped into preparation and promotional work.

“People were basically spending a lot of their voucher money on just accommodation and not touring,” he said.

Data from the Tourism NT spokesperson shows the majority of spending took place across the Top End, with about 10 per cent of the total sales made in Central Australia and less still in Katherine.

Accommodation, fishing charters and harbour cruises topped the spending list.

Chief Minister Michael Gunner acknowledged the touring sector’s traditional markets had dried up and said “some big and hard decisions” would need to be made.

For Mr Coulton, that came earlier this year: he will soon cut ties with his long-time home, sell his business and relocate to the Pilbara in WA.

“I just decided to hang on as long as I could and just shelve the lot,” he said.

“Physically, emotionally, mentally it had taken a lot out of me.”

Stormy weather ahead

As the industry turns the corner on its low period over the northern summer, the concern facing operators now is how to make up ground lost during a desolate peak season.

“It’s also important to note this has gone a small way — a $5 million dollar voucher campaign against a $2.6 billion-per-year industry,” Glen Hingley from Tourism Top End said.

“It’s been a small, little stopgap and we’re grateful the Government is continuing this on in round two or three, for what we think of as our critical infrastructure.”

Some hopes are hanging on a plan to rebrand the hot and humid end-of-year period in order to drive up domestic visitation and attract spending from locals who can no longer travel to places like Bali, Singapore and Thailand.

The push is premised on an aspirational future where coronavirus doesn’t return and drive everyone back into lockdown — and even if it does not, there is widespread concern that there is stormy weather ahead.

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