Tour group abandoned in outback

In Australian Domestic Tourism, Business Resources, Featured Home Page News, Harmonisation, Queensland

An alleged fight between a tour company’s 70-year-old owner and their bus driver has resulted in a group of tourists being left abandoned in Longreach.

“It’s just been really, really stressful,” tourist Mark Hewitt, of Newcastle, said.

“We thought we were going to get another bus and continue on our tour … but [on Wednesday] we were told this gentleman who owned the company had cancelled all the bookings and we were on our own.” Mr Hewitt

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From ABC News 8.4.22

Members of a tour group say their outback holiday has turned into “a nightmare” after they were left “stranded” in remote Queensland by their east coast tour operator.

Halfway through an eight-day tour of the outback, an alleged fight broke out between the tour company’s 70-year-old owner, Charlie Sturgess, and bus driver Robert Kellett, 59, near a local restaurant in Longreach.

Police said Mr Sturgess fell through a ground-floor window during the incident on Tuesday night.

Mr Sturgess, who owns Cannonvale-based company Reef N Beyond, then left town with his bus but without his tour group or his employee.

A man stares at the camera
Mark Hewitt said most of the tour group were aged 65 and over.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

“It’s just been really, really stressful,” tourist Mark Hewitt, of Newcastle, said.

“We thought we were going to get another bus and continue on our tour … but [on Wednesday] we were told this gentleman who owned the company had cancelled all the bookings and we were on our own.

Many of the tourists used credits from travel company TripADeal to book the outback tour.

CEO Norm Black said the company “acted immediately” when they were made aware of the situation on Wednesday morning, and flew the tourists out of Longreach to their respective home towns on Thursday.

“Once that plane takes out from Longreach I’ll be thinking ‘thank God I’m out’,” Mr Hewitt said.

“[But] Winton, Hughenden, Charters Towers — there were 10 of us going to come in there, buy coffee, buy drinks — so all those little communities have lost as well.”

A tour group eating lunch at a pub
The tour group was set to travel from Mackay to the outback and back to Townsville.(Supplied: Reef N Beyond)

Police said investigations into the alleged assault between the two business associates were continuing.

“It’s something very unusual and it’s very unfortunate for the people involved,” Longreach police officer in charge, Senior Sergeant Regan Drahim, said.

“Obviously these people have invested a lot of money in their tour and it’s very disappointing for them.”

Sydney pensioner Robyn Hughes said she paid $4,000 for the tour, excluding airfares.

“I’m very disappointed. I was so looking forward to seeing the dinosaur museum,” she said.

“I want us to get our money back.”

Others in the group had extended trips booked with the same company.

‘Not left stranded’

Mr Sturgess told the ABC he intended to fully refund the tourists but denied the group was left stranded.

He said he had intended to continue the tour, but “none of the other passengers wanted anything to do with me” following the alleged altercation.

“These people were not left stranded. They were given plenty of opportunity but refused it,” Mr Sturgess said.

“We are a very professional business and this has never happened before and will not happen in the future.

“We will be giving the people full refunds and the money TripADeal has paid for their plane flights home, we will be refunding them.

Mr Kellett, who had been driving the bus, declined to comment.

A woman leaning against a counter in an Akubra.
Denise Brown says this is the first time she has heard of this kind of alleged incident in outback Queensland.(Supplied)

Outback Queensland Tourism Association chief executive Denise Brown said she had never heard of tourists being separated from their tour bus in the outback in such a manner.

“I’m incredibly sad for our tourists who’ve come out for their long-awaited trip.”

Queensland Tourism Industry Council chief executive Daniel Gshwind said there was no specific legislation governing tourism operators, but there were duty-of-care obligations.

Screenshot of online itinerary
The itinerary for the eight-day “outback experience”.(Supplied: Reef N Beyond)

“Like any other consumer facing business, they are falling under the consumer protection laws, and obviously they have legal duty-of-care obligations that you cannot step away from,” he said.

As they left Longreach, the tour group members said they had felt welcomed by outback locals.

The morning they were left stranded, another tour operator had dropped them at a local tourist attraction for the day.

“The people in town here have been extremely friendly and welcoming,” Ms Silver said.

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