The Cairns region faces a long road to recovery from the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. Official Treasury JobKeeper data released in June 2020 reveals Cairns is one of the hardest-hit areas economically in the country, with more workers on JobKeeper wage subsidies in Cairns than any other postcode in Queensland. The city ranked fifth in Australia behind the CBD areas of Sydney and Melbourne, which clearly demonstrates the devastating impact coronavirus has had on sectors such as tourism, hospitality and education.

Since March there has been a 95% reduction in flights into Cairns and this has had a knock-on effect for the wider Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) economy. Governments at both Federal and State level have recognised the severity of the challenges facing Cairns and have been strongly supportive with a suite of assistance measures so far, most focused around business survival.

Tourism remains a core pillar of the economy and its survival and resurgence will be vital for regional recovery, particularly as it is a key driver of aviation connectivity. However, there is consensus amongst regional leaders that now, more than ever, it is important that we escalate the broadening of our economic base to mitigate the impact of future shocks.

To achieve this, we have identified a prioritised sequence of complementary projects that build on our tourism base and will enhance economic resilience through diversification.

This first phase of investments are related to the marine, aviation, health and agriculture sectors, with several shovel-ready projects that can be fast-tracked with the support of the Queensland Government. These projects will generate hundreds of jobs in traditional and advanced manufacturing, health and allied industries, engineering and design and construction. They will inject much needed confidence into the business sector, and community more broadly.

Supported in the short-term by the extension of JobKeeper and other immediate survival measures such as payroll tax relief, electricity support, lease fee waivers and small business COVID-19 adaptation grants, the recommended initiatives will help to support the recovery of the Cairns region.In addition, fast tracking of capital works, the re-establishment of domestic aviation connectivity, investment in destination marketing, and the easing of interstate travel restrictions will be critical for TNQ.

In selecting priority projects for the region, Advance Cairns recommends the following catalytic investments:

  • $115 million to progress Stage 2 of the Cairns University Hospital Innovation Precinct; plus $60 million to fund 80 new beds in the existing hospital;
  • $365.5 million to upgrade the Western Arterial section of the Cairns Ring Road;
  • $21 million to undertake a Strategic Assessment of Service Requirements, Preliminary Evaluation and Business Case for Kuranda Range Road upgrades;
  • $854 million for 80% of cost of Nullinga Dam (Option 2A in detailed business case) with water users funding $215 million;
  • $174 million for Stage 2 and 3 upgrades of the Cairns Marine Precinct, delivering a strategic national Defence asset which meets the security needs of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update; plus sustainment and maintenance contracts for up to six Offshore Patrol Vessels to be home based in Cairns;
  • $95 million for two tertiary education projects – CQUniversity’s Cairns CBD campus and CQUniversity’s Asia Pacific Aviation Hub; plus recurrent funding of $26.7 million per year for 80 new medical student placements at James Cook University;
  • $62.6 million to deliver three arts, culture and sport projects – Cairns Gallery Precinct, Cairns Showground, Sporting and Community Precinct upgrades, and a sports tourism sector business case;
  • $136 million to seal remaining sections of Gulf Savannah Way in Queensland;
  • Revisions to the Coastal Trading (Revitalising Australian Shipping) Act 2012 to allow foreign superyacht vessels to charter in Australia;
  • The establishment of an Office of the Pacific bureau in Cairns;
  • $100 million over four years to establish a state-wide Aviation Capacity Expansion fund;
  • A framework for prioritised Strategic Agricultural Areas and the establishment of an Office of the Coordinator General in Cairns.