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ABC News
Charmayne Allison, Evan Wallace and Stewart Brash

Tourism operators flee Alice Springs amid claims fewer tourists flying into region than at height of pandemic

Alice Springs tourism operator Filippo Gelada says he will leave the region before the end of the tourist season. (Supplied: Filippo Gelada)

For the past 10 years, tourism operator Filippo Gelada has dedicated his life to promoting Alice Springs.  

"When you go to a place and you can't even go for a nice walk after dinner because it's unsafe — why should I tell people to come?" he said.

The director of local tour company, Outback Elite Tours, Filippo is the latest Central Australian operator to pack up and leave the region because of crime.

He said in recent months, issues plaguing the town had taken a toll on him and wife Laura, who worked in the local service industry.

"She has been constantly harassed at work. At one stage she even got punched," he said.

When he returned from a dinner in Alice Springs recently to find one of his tour vehicles had been attacked with rocks, it was the nail in the coffin.

Outback Elite Tours director Filippo Gelada says Alice Springs crime has taken its toll in recent months. (Supplied: Filippo Gelada)

"You have to explain to your customers why these things happen, why this vandalism occurs day-to-day in Alice Springs, and people struggle to understand," he said.

"They're like, what's happening? Why didn't the government do anything?"

Seats down to pandemic levels

Filippo was initially planning to stay in Alice Springs until the end of the tourism season.

But the recent attack on his vehicle has accelerated plans, and he'll now cut the season short.

He's not the only one leaving.

Little more than a month ago, one of Central Australia's largest charter and tour bus companies also pulled out, citing "external challenges".

Tourism Central Australia's Danial Rochford says the number of seats on flights into Alice Springs has dropped to 2020 levels. (Supplied: Danial Rochford)

Tourism Central Australia chief executive Danial Rochford has revealed the number of seats on flights into Alice Springs have plummeted to levels seen in the middle of the pandemic.

He claimed this was according to a quarterly report, provided by the NT government.

"In January 2021, during the pandemic, we had approximately 57,000 inbound seats, versus just 38,000 seats in January this year," he said.

At the height of the pandemic, Qantas received billions of dollars of subsidies to stay afloat, despite posting a billion-dollar half-year profit.

But Mr Rochford claimed once these subsidies dried up, airlines slashed seat capacity, with almost 60,000 Qantas seats into the region cut in one year.

And yet, he said demand remained "massive".

"People are filling those seats, which says to me, we've got an economic argument to grow the number of seats," he said.

Qantas was contacted for comment.

One of Central Australia's largest charter and tour bus companies, ATG Downunder, also recently left the region. (Supplied)

Tourism industry under 'sustained attack'

Mr Rochford said stories like Filippo's were becoming all too common.

"We have come under sustained attack on multiple fronts," he said.

"And our small businesses in particular, are just getting to that stage where they just can't take much more."

Mr Rochford announced this week that the start of this year's tourism season was down 30 per cent on 2019, the last proper tourism season.

He said he was continuously urging the NT government to step in and save the local tourism industry as it grappled with soaring airfares, cost of living pressure, and negative crime coverage.

This included lobbying other airlines, such as Bonza, to service the region.

When asked by the ABC about Mr Rochford's claims of spiralling seat numbers, NT Tourism Minister Nicole Manison pointed to the number of flights, not seats, coming to Alice Springs.

She said the outback town would have more than 200 flights this month, compared to 62 flights in April 2020, at the start of the pandemic.

"The NT government and TCA are working with the Airport Development Group to attract more airlines and are meeting next week to discuss further," Ms Manison said.

But Mr Rochford pointed out while flights may have increased, Qantas had slashed the number of seats by swapping from 174-seat planes to smaller 94-seat aircrafts.

Tourism operator Filippo Gelada says he'll be sad to leave Alice Springs. (Supplied: Filippo Gelada)

'It's not comfortable living here'

As for many others, the prospect of leaving Alice Springs has been heartbreaking for Mr Gelada.

The outback town has been the backdrop to some of his most treasured milestones.

It's where he started a business, bought a home, became an Australian citizen, and met and married his wife.

But crime pressures have become too much for the couple.

Laura has already left to set up a new life for them in Adelaide, and says she'll never return to Alice Springs.

Soon, Filippo will follow.

"This town has given us a lot, we wouldn't be where we are without Alice Springs," he said.

"But it's not comfortable living here anymore."

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