The roads less travelled: how the pandemic lured Australians from the city to the country

Kate O’Shaugnessy was stood down from her job in hospitality when Sydney’s first lockdown began in March 2020. She found herself confined to an apartment in the inner-eastern suburb of Zetland.

The promise of more space, as well as growing opportunities in regional Australia, led her to take up the offer of work in Tamworth in July 2020. In April this year she returned to the city in central Nuovo Galles del Sud where she grew up: Dubbo.

O’Shaugnessy says its “standard of hospitality has come forward leaps and bounds”.

“I can see the growth that Dubbo has had between growing up here and coming back," lei dice.

Nel 2020 il Australian Bureau of Statistics registered the largest inflow of Australians moving to regional areas from capital cities since records began.

Dr Kim Houghton, the chief economist at the Regional Australia Institute, said the net gain of 43,000 more people living in the regions was the result of not only an increase in people relocating from cities, but an even bigger rise in people staying in the regions.

Houghton said the inability in some states to move to capital cities in lockdown could account for more people, especially in regional Victoria, staying put. But the fact the trend was seen across all Australian states suggested the pandemic had created the conditions in which “those already in regional areas are finding reasons to stay while city dwellers are finding compelling reasons to relocate”.

The lockdowns of 2020 hit the cities much harder than the regions, which recovered quicker. Many regional sectors experienced a strong sense of business optimism last year, according to Houghton.

“By August 2020 job vacancies were back to pre-Covid and kept going up, with now close to a third of the regions seeing job vacancy numbers going up by 45%,” Houghton said. Houses also remained more affordable in the regions, at about half the price of a house in a capital city.

Houghton said the agriculture sector had benefited from the rains coming to the east coast, while regional tourism had rebounded strongly in areas not dependent on international tourism, creating “buoyancy and optimism in regional Australia”.

Although O’Shaugnessy has now found herself in lockdown in Dubbo, she said the experience in 2021 has been easier as she knows what to expect. It hasn’t altered her plans to stay in the regions.

In the long term, she wants to pursue opportunities with the group she is working for in Dubbo – she has now been promoted to manager of the Commercial Hotel, one of the city’s main pubs. But she also aspires to operate her own business using skills from the MBA she is now studying.

While the demographic who moved from capital cities to regional areas used to be retirees, it is changing to become increasingly working age populations, according to Prof Pauline McGuirk, the director of the Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space research centre at the University of Wollongong.

McGuirk says the boost in regional populations comes down to the factors that normally drive people to leave capitals and move to regions, including access to employment, housing prices and lifestyle benefits.

“But what Covid has done is introduce at scale the opportunity to work from home and consider doing so on a long-term basis.”

Houghton said the pivot to working from home that came with the pandemic overcame a longstanding problem of accommodating the white-collar work of the partners of people who have been offered work in regional Australia.

Kirsten Karbowiak was able to operate her small business remotely when her husband was offered a job in Orange in May 2019.

Karbowiak and her husband had been living in the western suburbs of Sydney, commuting an hour to the city on the train each day. The chance to move to Orange forced the couple to ask themselves what benefit the city was bringing them.

Orange, Karbowiak says, has “the drawcard of having more space, a great place to raise a family as well as the food and the wine culture”.

Her husband’s work took the family back to Sydney in December 2020 but Karbowiak was left “craving” the community she’d had in the regional centre.

On returning to Sydney she was excited to be able to see her family and friends again, but she realised visits were still a minimum of half an hour away, while friends in Orange were only ever 10 minutes away.

While her two-year-old son was excited to experience riding lifts and buses for the first time in Sydney, on walks Sydneysiders failed to respond to the custom she’d grown used to in Orange of greeting passersby.

When her husband was given the opportunity to return to work in Orange in July 2021, the couple seized the opportunity.

“Orange was like a magnet drawing us back, pulling us over the mountains.”

Karbowiak says upon her family’s return, finding a rental property and a spot for her son in daycare proved more challenging, as the market has become more saturated.

One of the issues with the increasing number of jobs available in regional Australia, says Houghton, is the accommodation crunch that has followed.

The answer, lui dice, is to offer a greater diversity of housing options while allowing job growth to continue.

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