Described as Australia’s “mini Grand Canyon”, Porcupine Gorge in north-west Queensland is a must-see for travellers on an outback pilgrimage.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, ranger Dean Faulks has never seen the national park so busy.
“We’ve gone from what we call our regular tourist season, which was booked out for about a month in June, to extend that to booked out fully for about three months now,” he said.
“It’s not uncommon for us to come here and find all the car parks full and then a few cars stacked up down along the track, which is something we’ve never seen before.”
Outback Queensland experienced its best tourism season on record in 2022 as Australians embraced the idea of holidaying at home.
Caravan sales boomed and travellers flocked to small towns and stunning natural attractions, which were seen as COVID-safe destinations.
“It’s more than just the young families, more than just the grey nomads – just people from all classes really getting out and having a look around,” Mr Faulks said.
A 40-minute drive down the road in Hughenden, small business owners like Jodie Coward say the influx of travellers has done wonders for the town.
The outback community was shielded from the pain experienced by other parts of the tourism sector during the pandemic.
“Last year, there were two days in the peak where the information centre had 500 visitors a day,” Ms Coward said.
“Our total town population is 1,100 people, so on any given day, our population increases by 50 per cent.
“That’s crazy. So that’s how busy we are.”
The tourist season in outback Queensland kicks off in autumn and hits its peak in the winter months.
But after two bumper years, the Outback Queensland Tourism Association has tempered its expectations for the coming season amid the cost-of-living squeeze.
“We don’t anticipate that it will be as huge in volume as it’s been in the last two years,” chief executive Denise Brown said.
“Those interest rates are biting hard, and the cost of living is biting hard on people.
“People are still keen to do things, it’s just a matter of they’re just a bit more careful with their money.”
Ms Brown said the return of cruise holidays, which were put on hold during the pandemic, was also splitting the market.
“Our coach business is down, and that’s largely because the cruise market has really given so many different incentives and really cheap rates to go on domestic cruises around Australia,” she said.
But Ms Brown said there was still interest from travellers in Victoria and South Australia who were eager to explore the outback.
“We’ve just done a couple of caravan and camping shows in those states and there’s a lot of pent-up demand,” she said.
Flinders Shire Mayor Jane McNamara said anticipating tourism numbers was “always a battle”.
“Last year, we thought the fuel prices would limit the numbers somewhat,” she said.
“I do think that this year with the rising cost-of-living, we will be battling to get those people on the road.”
She hopes tourism initiatives, like Hughenden’s inaugural Festival of Outback Skies in April, will help attract thousands of visitors to the town.
In Charters Towers, an hour and a half from Townsville, tourist van park owner Brad Chilton is not worried about a dip in trade.
“The last two years have been the best we’ve ever had, and I think the next year will be a good one as well,” he said.
“The main thing to consider is there’s a huge number of new RVs out there – people own these caravans and motorhomes, and obviously they’re going to use them.
“I think it’s here to stay. I really do. I think it’s something that people want to do.”