ABC Mildura-Swan Hill By Kellie Hollingworth 1 June 2021

Key points:

  • With international borders still shut, backpacker hostel operators are selling up
  • Farmers may find it harder to attract labour if accommodation options dry up
  • Governments are being urged to establish a quarantine program to bring backpackers back into Australia


Buying a backpacker hostel during a pandemic is not an obvious investment choice, but a Victorian couple are hoping they can make it work.

When COVID-19 left Adam Mair facing the prospect of moving to Western Australia for his oil and gas industry job, he and his wife Bec took a leap of faith and purchased the Maffra Cambrai Lodge instead.

“My husband came home out of the blue and said, ‘Do you wanna buy the backpackers?'” Ms Mair said.

Mr Mair said they had always liked to travel.

“We thought, ‘Well, we can’t travel — so how about we bring the travellers to us?'” he said.

In Gippsland, where demand for dairy workers and vegetable pickers is high, backpackers still in Australia are spoilt for choice of work.

“It’s their quiet time and farmers are still after people,” Mr Mair said.

“Dairy farmers are screaming for workers — they will start getting busy in July during calving season.”

A married couple standing together with big smiles on their faces.
Adam and Bec Mair took over the backpacker hostel Cambrai Lodge about a month ago even though international borders remain closed. (ABC Rural: Kellie Lazzaro)

Ms Mair said, at the moment, most backpackers were chasing the $2,000 bonus on offer for six weeks’ work picking fruit and vegetables on the harvest trail.

“So it’s a little bit hard to get them onto a dairy farm because they are chasing that bonus,” she said.

She said the shrinking backpacker accommodation sector was a concern for the agriculture industry.

“There are two hostels in Maffra at the moment and they were both for sale at the same time,” she said.

“The other one has closed down.”

A man stands beside a mural that says "Mildura International Backpackers" and features the flags of different countries.
John George is managing the Mildura International Backpackers on behalf of new owners who will convert it into accommodation for seasonal workers. (ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Kellie Hollingworth)

Cashing out

The closure of international borders and the ever-present threat of COVID-19 has prompted hostel operators to weigh up whether to stay in business.

Some hostels are for sale and others are being repurposed.

After 13 years in the business, John George made the tough decision not to renew his lease at the Mildura International Backpackers.

It can accommodate 41 people and was sold to a group of local farmers who plan to use it to house seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands.

Mr George, who will manage the property, said guests would have work organised when they arrived.

“Our role will be to ensure they are comfortable and that nothing in their living conditions gives them a cause for concern, enabling them to be happy in attending the work that they do,” he said.

A "for sale" sign in front of the Oasis Backpackers in Mildura.
Oasis in Mildura is for sale and prospective buyers have varying ideas about how the property could be used. (ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Kellie Hollingworth)

‘Pretty scary’

A few blocks away, Mildura real estate agent Mark Thornton was selling the Oasis Backpackers.

The 25-bedroom property can sleep 100 people and has been on the market for three weeks.

“There’s some interest to continue it on as a backpackers,” Mr Thornton said.

“There have been others who want to redevelop the site … others are seeing the opportunity for it to continue being used for accommodation, but not for backpackers.”

Mr Thornton said at least two other local backpacker hostel operators were thinking about selling up.

“I think that’s a pretty scary situation for Sunraysia,” he said.

“We know how much this area relies on the backpacking industry, how vital they are for horticulture.

“If these all sell and they don’t remain as backpackers, what do we do when the borders open up?

“What does the community do when backpackers want to come here but we can’t really house them?”

A row of people, each separated by a metre or two, lean over a balcony signposted "Accommodation: Harvest trail lodge Loxton".
BYTAP wants the Australian government to establish a quarantine program to allow working holidaymakers back into the country. (ABC News: Anita Ward)

‘We are concerned’

The number of working holidaymakers in Australia is at its lowest in decades.

“Normally there’d be around 150,000 working holidaymakers in Australia at any one time,” Backpacker and Youth Tourism Advisory Panel (BYTAP) committee member Silke Kerwick said.

“We’re currently down to 38,000.”

The Youth Hostel Association, which was operating 70 properties across Australia at the start of the pandemic, said that number had dropped to 55.

BYTAP wants the working holidaymaker program to resume in a COVID-safe way, similar to pilot programs that have enabled international students to return to Australia.

“We would like to bring them in and quarantine them in a youth hostel, or in student accommodation if there isn’t capacity in the current hotel facilities,” Ms Kerwick said.

“We are concerned there won’t be a capacity in the big cities and regional areas if a lot of these hostels are converted into other uses, so there may need to be some temporary accommodation — pop-up hostels to accommodate working holidaymakers who are doing farm work.”