Backpackers flock back, but rental crisis hampers efforts to recruit them

Key points

  • Backpackers are returning to Australia in greater numbers after years of lockdowns. 
  • Businesses on Victoria’s Surf Coast are hoping to attract backpackers to fill vacant jobs. 
  • Tourism groups say the lack of affordable housing is still a major hurdle in attracting workers. 

Backpackers are flocking back to Australia to work after disappearing for much of the pandemic, but businesses say a lack of affordable housing is making it difficult to recruit them and other workers.

About 116,100 working holidaymakers arrived in the country over the past year compared with only 1695 in 2021, when international borders were closed, according to data from the Department of Home Affairs. However, this year’s figure is still significantly less than the 308,400 who arrived before the pandemic, in 2019, according to Tourism Australia.

Working holidaymakers are returning to Australia after nearly three years of pandemic-induced border closures. Credit:Tanya Lake

A government spokesman said working holidaymakers made an important cultural and economic contribution to Australia, which included filling skills and labour gaps.

But tourism leaders and businesses say a severe lack of affordable housing in Victoria has hampered efforts to attract more staff, including seasonal workers.

An increasing population in regional Victoria, more people buying holiday homes and the proliferation of short-stay sites such as Airbnb have all contributed to rental shortages.

Victorian Tourism Industry Council chief executive Felicia Mariani said the sector had relied heavily on backpackers and international students since the 1990s to plug workforce gaps, but businesses trying to recruit workers now are struggling to house them.

Housing in regional areas, including Victoria’s Surf Coast, has become increasingly scarce. Credit:Paul Jones

While Mariani urged employers to look at ways of attracting a more diverse workforce, including hiring more mature-age workers, she insisted rental shortages remained an intractable problem for the industry.

“The big issue is housing, particularly in regional areas. Even if businesses can find workers out there, they can’t find long-term rental housing,” she said.

The Great Ocean Road Coast and Parks Authority said it was working with traders, community members and councils to increase the available accommodation for seasonal workers in Lorne. It has offered five sites, each with room for four people, at the Lorne Foreshore Caravan Park to be used exclusively by seasonal workers this summer.

Some employers have resorted to leasing rental properties to house workers in regional Victoria, where the rental vacancy rate fell below 1 per cent earlier this year.

Kimberley Brown, second from right, has taken on long-term leases for her staff at the North Pier Hotel.Credit:Jason South

In the town of Cowes on Phillip Island, a popular holiday destination off Victoria’s south coast, North Pier Hotel general manager Kimberley Brown has secured eight long-term residential rental properties for 26 of her employees.

“I need another three houses to be comfortable going into summer that I’ll be able to secure enough staff and save enough staff from having to relocate,” she said.

Brown said many people had recently moved to Phillip Island permanently while others had bought holiday homes during lockdowns, which meant there were fewer houses on the long-term rental market.

She charges the employees $150 a week in rent, which includes bills.

“They’re usually people who are happy to relocate and work lots of hours, but they don’t have anywhere to live.”

She said that before the pandemic, the hotel had hired up to 20 working holidaymakers at a time during peak summer periods. They had come from countries across the world, including Argentina, Poland, Canada, the UK and India.

While she had no backpackers working for her at the moment, Brown said she had received resumes from six international job applicants over the past few days.

Holiday destinations such as Lorne have been desperate to attract workers over the past year. Credit:Eddie Jim

Bass Coast Shire chief executive Ali Wastie said that, unlike Brown, many small businesses lacked the means to lease residential properties to their workers.

Wastie, who is also the Alpine Resorts Victoria chair, said landlords could make more money on short-stay platforms than on the long-term rental market.

“This is certainly the case for our alpine and coastal regions,” she said.

She said there were more than 2000 registered short-stay properties in the Bass Coast Shire, which includes Phillip Island and Inverloch.

The shire will start charging a $300 fee for short-stay accommodation providers in July, but Wastie said this money went towards maintaining services such as waste rather than acting as a financial incentive for owners to put their homes on the long-term rental market.

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