Luke Sexton, of Doreen, back right, reopened tour company REAL Australia in July after a nearly two-and-a-half-year COVID-19 lockdown break, which greatly affected the number of international students in Australia. ​

By Grace Frost

A Doreen business owner is hoping the return of international students to Australia and State Government support to encourage more students to move to Victoria will reinvigorate his tour company.

Luke Sexton reopened his tour company REAL Australia in July after a nearly two-and-a-half-year break amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Melbourne-based tour company hosts tours for Study Abroad students and full-degree international students, aiming to provide them with the ‘real’ experience of Aussie life.

Mr Sexton purchased the company in 2015 after working as the operations manager for a year, hosting tours alongside a team of people along the Great Ocean Road, Healesville, Phillip Island and Mornington Peninsula, among other destinations.

The closure of Australia’s borders in 2020 meant international students were unable to travel to Victoria or experience university on campus during the pandemic.

Mr Sexton said the company was hit hard by lockdowns and border closures.

“Around mid-March 2020, we had to cancel all of the tours we had planned,” he said.

“We lost all business and the majority of any partnerships and relationships we had in place, as universities were also heavily hit and lost a lot of their staff that we worked with.”

Mr Sexton said the tour company had returned to not only provide international students the opportunity to tick off ‘bucket-list’ adventures, but also allow them to quickly integrate themselves into the Melbourne community.

“We love our country and are passionate about people and want to help integrate international students into our country, helping them feel more at home in Melbourne,” Mr Sexton said.

“We believe some of the best memories these students can make are through the relationships they form while here, rather than simply just the sights they see.”

The Victorian tourism industry remains in recovery after the state’s lockdowns, recording a net loss of $19.5 billion at the end of 2020.

About 37,000 extra students have returned to Victoria since international borders reopened in December.

A new State Government International Education Recovery Plan 2025, launched earlier this month, will aim to support more international students in their return to Melbourne and regional Victoria.

Backed by almost $53 million of government funding, the plan sets out to build Victoria’s performance as a leader in education excellence and student experience, through initiatives such as an International Student Travel Pass, which offers a 50 per cent discount on public transport for students once they arrive in Victoria.

Minister for Higher Education Gayle Tierney said the recovery plan acknowledged the critical role international students play in Victoria.

“We’re backing the return of international students because they make a critical contribution to our state, boost the economy and add to our cultural fabric,” she said.

Mr Sexton said he hoped REAL Australia could support orientation programs in Australian universities with the increasing number of international students returning to the state.

“We aim to leave students feeling seen and valued as they leave us at the end of a tour, in a way they haven’t experienced before,” he said.

“Still to this day, there’s a lot of unknowns, but we are back, international students are back … and we’re excited to see what 2023 holds and beyond.”