Thursday, 01 November 2012
Speech to Australian Tourism Directions Conference, Canberra
Thank you for the opportunity to speak at the Australian Tourism Directions Conference.
I have a long-standing and profound interest in promoting Australia's service industries, including our largest service industry – tourism, which is worth $34 billion to our GDP and involving the direct and indirect employment of almost a million workers.
Immigration and tourism are obviously intrinsically related: both in facilitating the travel of millions of tourists each year to Australia and in providing the industry with the manpower required to fill labour shortages.
In recent years, Australia's immigration process for visitors has changed significantly, innovating and adapting to the changing nature of international travel and the move towards more efficient and streamlined online transactions.
In 2008, we introduced the eVisitor visa to provide reciprocal entry arrangements to visitors from European Union member countries.
In 2011-12, online Tourist visa application lodgement was expanded to citizens of six new countries, including three in the emerging Latin American tourism market.
And, last month, my department sought expressions of interest from interested parties to explore the opportunities for modernising the ETA system to deliver further efficiencies for the department and visitors.
Visitor visas have fluctuated in the last decade but reached a four year high in 2011-12, with over 3.5 million visas granted. This compares to 3.2 million visas in 2001-02.
As you know, over the last decade, key markets have shifted from Europe, the Americas, Japan and Korea to other Asian neighbours, particularly China and India. This reflects our growing economic and community ties with these countries.
Australia's Visitor visa processing times are highly competitive internationally. Over 70 per cent of visas in 2011-12 were granted almost instantaneously to applicants who apply online, and the median processing time for paper applications for Tourist visas was just five days.
Importantly, in the dynamic and critical market of China, our Tourist visa processing system is consistently rated by the travel industry in China as the market leader in facilitative services. Australia's visa system has been acknowledged as best practice by the Chinese Government.
A recent survey commissioned by Tourism Australia identified that Chinese visitors view Australia as their most desired long haul destination and they see the Australian visa process as being easier or comparable to other long haul destinations.
Australia's processing times in China are as good as or better than key competitor countries. Most Tourist visa applications by Chinese group travellers are processed within 3 days, and those for independent travellers are processed within 5 to 7 days.
Overall visitor visa approval and compliance rates remain high, with an overall visa grant rate of more than 97 per cent and over 99 per cent of visitors departing Australia before their visa expired last year. The Tourist visa grant rate for Chinese nationals is also very high, at around 93 per cent in 2011-12.
Other useful data on grants, processing times and visa grant and compliance rates is published on the department's website.
The government is also implementing a range of initiatives to ensure Australia is well placed to respond to visitor growth.
In 2013, we will introduce a simplified Visitor visa framework, to make it easier for visitors to choose the right visa option and to make it simpler to apply. Short term specialised workers will be moved to a new dedicated visa, the Short Stay Activity visa. Visitors will continue to be able to undertake business activities, such as attending conferences and business negotiations.
We are also looking at granting visas with a longer validity and eligibility for multiple entries to low risk repeat visitors.
I recently announced changes to facilitate regular extended visits by parents of Australian citizens and permanent residents by the end of this year. While this initiative is not aimed at general tourists, it will be of some benefit to the tourism industry through greater use of its services by these repeat visitors.
In what I regard as a significant and positive move, to keep pace with visitor growth and greater global internet use, from next year we plan to progressively roll out online Tourist visa applications to all countries. This reflects a move away from associating online lodgement only with low risk countries.
We recognise, though, that online lodgement is not for everyone, so we have also expanded our network of Visa Application Centres overseas, managed by commercial Service Delivery Partners, to provide better access and more service options to our clients overseas.
We now have 62 Visa Application Centres in 35 countries operated by service delivery partners. Two centres have recently opened in China, with more planned in the near future. Twelve additional centres have opened across the South Pacific. In India, there are nine Visa Application Centres.
Many offer extended opening hours and additional services, such as pre-lodgement enquiries, online passport tracking, SMS updates, passport photos and translation.
This all leaves my department to focus less on paper shuffling and more on its core business of assessing the merits of visa applications as quickly as possible.
To further streamline the visa approval process, we have also been encouraging applicants not to request physical visa labels in their passports. These labels are not required by the Australian Government and just slow down visa processing. A person's visa status can be verified through electronic travel systems and online.
I am very pleased that our biggest markets for visas, China and India, have agreed to label-free travel for all people travelling from these countries from 1 October 2012. Although it is early days, the indicators are that this has been successful.
So, from the Immigration perspective, we are working hard to facilitate faster and more efficient visitor arrangements for the tourism industry to further build on the 3.5 million visitors who in 2011-12.
Working Holiday Maker visas
I would now like to turn to Australia's Working Holiday Maker visa program, which I know is very important to the tourism industry.
At its heart, the Working Holiday Maker program is aimed at enhancing people-to-people links between young people from our partner countries. The program provides the opportunity for young adults, aged 18-30, to enjoy an extended holiday in each other's country, during which time they can engage in short term work to supplement their travel funds.
The WHM program began in 1975, initially as a Commonwealth scheme, but has expanded to encompass a wide range of partner countries in Asia, Europe, Latin America and our Pacific region.
The UK, Ireland, Germany and South Korea continue to provide the majority of Working Holiday Makers, however there is increasing uptake from other partner countries such Taiwan, Hong Kong, Italy and France.
The Working Holiday Maker program is all about our shared relationships with partner countries and a Working Holiday Maker arrangement recognises the strength of these connections and enhances our cultural connections and people to people links.
Today, Australia's Working Holiday Maker program is one of the most popular and largest of its kind in the world – larger than our nearest competitors, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand combined – with reciprocal arrangements in place with 28 partner countries. This highlights the overwhelming competitive strength and appeal of Australia.
The last decade, in particular, has been characterised by a strong increase in growth which has seen the program double in size, with over 220 000 visas granted last year.
Since 2009, the number of Working Holiday Maker visas we have issued has doubled. Indeed, there are more Working Holiday Makers in Australia now than at any time previously – and demand is increasing.
I know you are all interested in seeing more Working Holiday Makers coming to Australia to spend money and work in casual jobs in tourism and hospitality. Certainly, research shows that Working Holiday Makers provide valuable support to Australian employers and contribute positively to our economy.
While we are working on a number of new agreements, Working Holiday Maker negotiations can take some time to finalise, often due to the regulatory issues within our partner countries.
We are looking to further grow the number of Working Holiday Maker partner countries where possible and where in the national interest.
Specifically, I was very pleased to recently announce the commencement of Work and Holiday negotiations with Greece and the expansion of our program with Indonesia. There are also ongoing negotiations towards arrangements with Uruguay and Mexico.
It is also hoped that an arrangement will be implemented in the near future with Papua New Guinea, which is an important expansion into our near Pacific region.
I am also pleased that, on current figures, around one in six Working Holiday Makers are taking up the option of a second year, having completed at least three months' work in regional Australia.
More than a third of all Working Holiday Makers who work, which in today's market equates to around 50 000 people, choose short term work in tourism and accommodation related industries.
The government is well-aware of the tourist industry's interest in being able to further tap into this casual labour source. This is something the government is happy to keep in discussions with you about. In these considerations it is also important that we keep in mind the need to provide appropriate training and employment opportunities for Australians keen to enter the workforce.
Finally, I would like to mention the role migration plays in helping the tourism industry to meet skilled and semi-skilled labour shortages.
The 457 visa program, in particular, is one way in which the tourism industry is able to meet skills shortages exacerbated by the competition for labour with the mining, oil and gas industries.The industry has been a keen adopter of this option, with the number of 457 visa grants in tourism and hospitality more than doubling in 2011-12. This was the highest growth rate recorded by any industry last year.
From the employer side, small businesses featured prominently in this growth. Meanwhile, on the employee side, 457 workers from Asian countries, whose language skills are in demand, accounted for 12 of the top 20 source countries.
This is particularly significant as we enter the Asian Century, where our economic success will in no small part depend on our ability to cater to the growing demands of the emerging Asian middle class for services, including for tourism and hospitality services.
In an increasingly global world, human capital is also increasingly global and mobile, and our 457 visa program goes some way to enabling Australian businesses to tap into Asian markets for skills and expertise that are in short supply in Australia, including Asian language skills.
These skills, and the linkages these workers help forge in the region, are critical for Australia's ability to effectively capitalise on the opportunities created by Asia's economic growth.
I would also note the steps taken by the government three years ago to reduce red tape for sponsors – by extending the sponsorship period from two to three years, streamlining the process for sponsoring 457 visa holders who are already onshore, and making 457 visa holders responsible for the costs of their own health insurance.
For those who haven't seen it, my department has produced a 'Guide to the 457 program for the tourism and hospitality industries', which is available on the department's website and is a useful resource.
Another option for employers in tourism who are experiencing difficulty filling specialised semi-skilled positions – like hotel service managers, silver service waiters, sommeliers, and tour guides – from the local labour market is to enter into labour agreements.
These occupations are not eligible for sponsorship under standard visas but may be negotiated under labour agreements which provide flexible immigration options, underpinned by strong integrity measures, for situations where the standard pathways don't meet an employer's needs.
A labour agreement is a formal contract between the government and an employer which requires a number of important commitments from the employer. These include:
- a commitment to the employment and training of Australians;
- an ability to pay the market salary rate above the temporary skilled migration income threshold; and
- being able to demonstrate that there is a genuine need to employ overseas workers, having first exhausted all options to recruit Australians.
While it is open to employers to approach my department at any time to discuss entering into a labour agreement, we have actively sought industry input into how labour agreements might best assist employers in the tourism industry.
We are still in the process of weighing up all the issues but we have received a variety of ideas for a template labour agreement for the industry, which would theoretically provide a "one size fits all" agreement that employers could sign as long as they meet the requirements I just outlined.
We have asked businesses, unions, and industry groups for their thoughts on how we can assist tourism industry employers to meet their skilled and semi-skilled worker needs. We're looking at factors such occupations, salaries, qualifications, English language ability, training, and ways of avoiding any worker exploitation or displacement of local workers.
But this kind of work has to be handled with caution: many roles in tourism are important entry-level opportunities for young or under-employed Australians. So we have to balance employment and training opportunities for Australians and fundamental protections for overseas workers with trying to achieve a good outcome for the Australian tourism industry.
Still, for businesses that cannot source skilled labour onshore, we are there to assist. It is not in anyone's interest for businesses to be held back by labour shortages.
My department is also working with the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism to identify regional hot spots where competition for labour, including the mining sector, is intensifying. We will consider these areas for targeting under the new Regional Migration Agreement or RMA program.
My department is set to release the RMA guidelines soon. The RMA program will assist regional employers to overcome skill and labour shortages that can create capacity constraints on business and lead to local inflationary pressures.
In another initiative of the Tourism and Labour Skills Working Group, last year my department worked with Restaurants and Catering Australia and the Australian Hotels Association to write to all Skilled Graduate visa holders and visa applicants whose stated occupation was as a cook, chef, baker or pastry cook. This initiative alerted over 8000 potential employees to employment vacancies on the AHA and RCA websites.
The last decade has seen many changes and advances, both for the tourism industry and for immigration. Traditional visitor source markets are being supplemented by strong growth from regional neighbours with whom Australia's relationship is expanding, particularly China and India. This bodes well for Australia's ambitions for the Asian Century.
The government is committed to continue improving the immigration process to support growth in the tourism industry. The next year will see further substantial changes, with a simplified Visitor visa framework, online visa lodgement access for visitors across the globe and further expansion of Australia's WHM program.
The government has also responded to fluctuations in the domestic labour market to support local workers and help employers meet labour shortages.
I look forward to continuing to work with the Tourism industry to continue to strengthen visitor visa arrangements and help your industry address key labour shortages.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Thursday, 01 November 2012 at 13:21 AEST