Uncertainty surrounds the potential re-starting of the $150 million schools excursion program to the ACT with coach operators, Canberra attractions and accommodation providers waiting on when they can kickstart their businesses.
Every year, federal education provides a specific grant to subsidise school visits to the ACT for children across the country for "citizenship education" and to familiarise themselves with our national institutions and processes.
To qualify for the parliamentary and civics education rebate (PACER) which pays between $20 to $340 per child depending on the distance travelled to the ACT, schools have to visit a minimum of Parliament House, the Old Parliament House and/or the National Electoral Education Centre and the Australian War Memorial.
House of Representatives Speaker Tony Smith said this week that Federal Parliament has no plans to re-open to the public despite coronavirus restrictions easing around the country. The House of Representatives and Senate sat for the first time in eight weeks on May 12.
Both Houses will return again on June 10 for seven days, then again in August and September, with three days in October for the Budget sittings.
The Australian War Memorial has given no indication as to when it will re-open, and neither has Old Parliament House.
While both are waiting on firm advice from the Chief Medical Officer, the added complication is that both also rely on volunteers to assist groups, as well as provide visitor guidance and support.
Most of these volunteers are in the most vulnerable age group should they be exposed to COVID-19.
July, August and September are traditionally the most popular times for school groups to travel into the ACT.
The re-opening of state borders is only one element to the school excursion uncertainty. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has described re-opening its state border to interstate travellers as "absolutely negligent" while NSW is recording new coronavirus cases advice.
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Other states which regularly send school groups to Canberra, such as Western Australia and Tasmania, have also been firmly against re-opening travel until August or September.
Wrapped within the school excursions business and also adding value to the ACT economy are travel agents, airlines, coach companies, accommodation providers, and caterers.
Without key institutions open, the question remains as to whether the federal rebate would still be offered or if it could be modified to allow school groups to visit alternative attractions within Canberra that have indicated they can re-open earlier.
Canberra Park in Watson, which has built high quality dormitory-style arrangements for visiting school groups and a large dining hall for their catering, takes about 25,000 students every year.
Canberra Park manager David Grigg said that while the business is holding bookings for school terms 3 and term 4 from late July onward, these cannot be given the go-ahead until appropriate advice is received from the ACT government and the ACT Chief Medical Officer.
He said that if even there's a "bubble" of school travel coming within NSW then that would be helpful right now after a prolonged period without guests.
"Following on from the bushfires, the drought and now COVID-19 it has been a very difficult time for us as a specialist school groups accommodation provider," he said.
"We definitely need some clarity because educational tourism brings a lot of money into the ACT and we don't get the same level of consideration as other elements of the tourism sector.
"If we receive that firm advice, we could open up to NSW and regional school groups, but would then need further guidance on how many children we would be permitted to accommodate and cater for."
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