How can the Gold Coast recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?

An aerial shot of the Gold Coast skyline, including the ocean and waves, a strip of sandy beach and a row of skyscrapers at varying heights along the coastline.

The iconic Gold Coast skyline. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

The iconic Gold Coast skyline. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the globe at the beginning of 2020, it was difficult to understand the enormity of the impact it would have on our regions and communities.

More than a year and a half on, vaccination rates are climbing and we’re nearing a future where lockdowns and border restrictions are relaxed. But we know recovery is never easy and is rarely a linear process – each region has its own unique environment, concerns and ambitions, and the way forward for the Gold Coast will vary significantly from Sydney (and even Brisbane).

On September 25, three expert UQ researchers joined UQ alumnus and ABC journalist Bern Young as part of UQ’s Regional Roadshow to discuss the Gold Coast’s roadmap to post-COVID recovery: What shifts are we seeing in the housing market? What is the future of tourism in the region? And how can we build local economic resilience?

Associate Professor Judith Mair

Discipline Leader of the Tourism Discipline Group at the UQ Business School

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Associate Professor Judith Mair

Associate Professor Judith Mair

Understanding how the Gold Coast will recover from COVID-19 relies first on understanding the market trends of the post-COVID consumer.

During the pandemic, there was a strong push for ‘going local’, necessitated by both domestic and international border closures: essentially, there was no other option but to stay in your respective regional backyards. This was an essential part of survival for many local tourism operators.

However, once international borders open, we expect many Australians will look for opportunities to travel abroad again. As a result, it’s likely that the domestic market will see a downturn.

While this will be partially supplemented by international tourists looking to holiday in Australia, the economic consequences of the pandemic mean many people don’t have the disposable cash to come to Australia. For our northern hemisphere counterparts, there are countless holiday options right next door: Australia, comparatively, is expensive and far away.

A point of optimism is the stability of the Chinese economy throughout the pandemic relative to the United States and United Kingdom. China is one of our major inbound tourist markets – in 2019, Chinese visitors spent $12.4 billion while in Australia, staying for an average of 43 nights. On the Gold Coast, China is the second most popular international source market. A fast recovery of the Chinese economy will be critical for tourism to bounce back in the region. 

So, where to from here? The first step is supporting the Gold Coast tourism industry to develop risk management and continuity plans that will it through turbulent times ahead, whether caused by unexpected events like future pandemics or ongoing threats like climate change.

We also need to increase awareness of the visitor economy and tourism ecosystem. Many people don’t recognise they’re in the tourism business, but if you encounter visitors, you’re part of the ecosystem – from banks, to bus drivers, to service stations. Recognising the importance of this connected ecosystem, rather than just those who work directly in tourism, is vital to ensuring a holistic recovery for the Gold Coast. Here at UQ, the Business School are using their expertise across marketing, workforce, sustainability and business continuity to work with industry and government to help drive recovery.

In the longer term, the 2032 Olympics will offer a significant opportunity for the region’s tourism industry and local economy. They will be the first Olympics to implement a regionally spread-out, hub-and-spoke model, seeking to diffuse the benefits of hosting across South East Queensland. They will also leverage much of the infrastructure and knowledge developed during the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. It is Queensland’s opportunity to showcase its expertise to the world: its resilience, entrepreneurialism, tourism, sports, health and business, occupying a strong part of the Gold Coast’s road to prosperity post-COVID.

The Gold Coast will be a key location in Brisbane's 2032 Olympics. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

The Gold Coast skyline at sunrise or sunset, with the ocean, beach and skyscrapers.

Professor Shaun Bond

Frank Finn Professor of Finance, UQ Business School

The COVID-19 pandemic heralded a fundamental shift in how many of us work, with work-from-home (where possible) urged as a public health directive. This widespread acceptance of a remote working culture is something we haven’t seen before, and something that is likely – in at least some capacity – to stay.

With rolling lockdowns and extended periods away from the office in our Southern neighbour states, the Gold Coast saw droves of new residents – largely Sydneysiders and Melburnians, but also Australians returning from overseas – attracted by the Gold Coast’s appealing lifestyle and cheaper house prices. We’ve also seen an increased demand for space as home becomes a place we spend more time in, with monthly house prices for houses growing more than for apartments and prices in regional areas outpacing the capital cities.

It's important, however, to frame this within the broader trends we’ve seen in the housing market outside of the pandemic. Home ownership has been gradually trending down for a long time, and Queensland has seen several significant spikes in inbound interstate migration beyond COVID. These trends are nothing new, although the pandemic has undoubtedly played an exacerbating role.

So, how has all of this affected Gold Coast locals?

The influx of new residents has both positive and negative effects for a region. One of the most significant downsides is that it can cause housing shortages and spike rental costs. This is particularly the case with the pandemic, which has compressed potentially five years’ growth into 18 months. In more normal times, this growing population could have been accommodated through increased housing supply, but the pandemic has upended this balance.

Unfortunately, these are particularly challenging times for low-income locals who are renting, as landlords may sell rental properties to take advantage of higher prices, or new arrivals may be willing to pay higher rent to secure their move. The risk is that this creates widening social dislocation and increased financial distress for Gold Coast residents.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom: the pandemic migration to the Gold Coast has also presented a unique, once-in-a-generation opportunity to fundamentally change the nature of the region, and for the better.

We have the opportunity to support diversification of the economy and build a more resilient region –  particularly in light of the lingering risks of the pandemic on the tourism sector. Now is the time to  capitalise on the talented newcomers and a growing middle class to encourage new business creation and start-ups, along with the development of regional offices and research hubs. With more economic success comes a greater demand for infrastructure and amenities like schools, green space, transport and health care, the expansion of which ultimately provides benefits to all residents. 

This is where – as a University – we and our alumni network play a critical role. Universities are drivers of human capital: we foster cutting edge-research, business innovation and entrepreneurship. While UQ has a less direct presence on the Gold Coast, we are a top-50 global university just over an hour away and our alumni are leaders in the region. In my view, the Gold Coast has the potential to emerge from the pandemic as one of the key growth regions in Australia.  

A man smiles into the camera. He is wearing a white shirt and a black blazer. There is a sandy coloured wall behind him.

Professor Shaun Bond

Professor Shaun Bond

Professor Jolanda Jetten

ARC Laureate Fellow at the UQ School of Psychology

A woman with brown hair smiles into the camera. She is wearing a blue blazer and gold hoop earrings.

Professor Jolanda Jetten

Professor Jolanda Jetten

Every crisis has an impact on our mental health, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Businesses are feeling the obvious fatigue as they prepare for rolling rounds of unpredictable lockdowns. For individuals, we’re left with the legacies of a psychological struggle that will be hard to shake: the anxieties around booking faraway trips in case of a snap lockdown, leaving us either empty-pocketed or trapped away from home. For the hotels used as quarantine facilities, there is a lingering nervousness (at least anecdotally) in the public for their shift back into holiday accommodation.

As a major tourism destination, the Gold Coast is likely to be affected by these persistent COVID fears, even as Australia’s lockdowns wind back and borders begin to tentatively open to travellers.

Business operators in the region – including tourism – need to also be aware of ‘the Great Resignation’, or the dramatic increase of employee turnover intention seen recently. COVID has given people the breathing room to decide what we really want from our lives: many of us are now driven by work-life-balance, not ambition. We’re also less willing to put up with bad employers. This is a particularly significant concern for employers seeking to kickstart new investments as the economy opens up.

But despite the challenges the pandemic has brought, it has also created an opportunity to start afresh. Disasters are a clean slate to rebuild the local economy, organisations, education and sustainability practices (including green tourism) to be better than they were before. To grow recovery beyond the expected – to be transformative – you need good leadership, bringing communities together and building a shared sense of a social identity.

It’s important to also recognise, however, that there is privilege in recovery. We know those who recover faster from crises are those who are more advantaged to start with. It’s only taken 9 months for the wealthy to bounce back, but people from lower socio-economic backgrounds will take years to recover.

Ultimately, recovery now and in the future will be about being better prepared for the unexpected. Beyond the pandemic, there have been repeated failures in managing the short-and long-term challenges following crises with detrimental consequence to life, communities and economies.

UQ researchers can offer their expertise to help navigate these situations. Every crisis has critical junctures: these are moments where we can rethink practices and discover new and more sustainable ways to recover. At UQ, we have the capacity to help develop evidence-based scientific knowledge and resources to future-proof society against crises and ensure we emerge with stronger communities.

Some of our COVID-19 anxieties around travel will likely linger even as borders open and lockdowns stop. Image: City of Gold Coast/Unsplash

UQ's Regional Roadshow covers Toowoomba, the Gold Coast, Maryborough and the Sunshine Coast