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Top chefs, including Neil Perry, say the 457 visa axing will cripple a key part of Australia's tourism industry

Chef Neil Perry. Source: supplied

A key plank in Australia’s tourism marketing strategy is being put at risk because of changes to the 457 visa program and the country’s top chefs say they’re “freaked out” as a result.

Tourism Australia has invested tens of millions of dollars in its Restaurant Australia campaign in late 2013, claiming it has increased the national food and wine spend by nearly a quarter – more than $1 billion – since then, but the hospitality industry is bracing for a skills crisis because of changes to the 457 visa category announced by the Turnbull government earlier this year.

Sydney chef Neil Perry, who now overseas the national Rockpool Dining Group with more than 60 restaurants and 3,000 staff serving everything from fine dining to burgers has told ABC TV’s Lateline that the company, which is pushing towards a $1 billion IPO, will now “have to rethink what we’re planning to do”.

Perry and fellow restaurateur Nino Zoccali, who runs Pendolino and La Rosa in Sydney’s Strand Arcade, voice their concerns on Lateline on Wednesday night.

Zoccali, who employs a majority of his front-of-house managers on 457 visas, says “everybody is freaked out”.

“Everybody is talking about key staff leaving and not wanting to stay because of the changes to the rules,” he told Lateline.

The 2015 Australian Tourism Labour Force Report by Deloitte Access Economics said an existing shortfall of 38,000 positions in the hospitality sector would rise to 123,000 by 2020.

The federal government’s own Department of Employment projected strong growth in employment of food trades workers over the five years to November 2020, up by 13.1% compared with 8.3% for all occupations.

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said in April that the 457 visa category, which allows employers to import skilled workers, would be abolished so Australians can fill local jobs.

The announcement has caused concern through a range of industries, including the startup and tech sectors, and within days of the announcement, data on the nation’s growing skills shortage emerged.

But Neil Perry said foreign workers on 457s were “super important for the restaurant industry because there are skills we need to bring in”.

Perry has embarked on a major training program for young Australians through his chain Burger Project to create a skilled local workforce, but now says the hospitality business he now oversees is reviewing future expansion because of a lack of skilled workers.

The veteran chef said he had always sought to employ Australian staff in those positions, but it was not always possible to find the right skillset.

While the government says several hospitality categories, including restaurant manager, baker and chef are still eligible for sponsorship, the sticking point for the industry is the government’s decision to kill off the ability of foreign workers to apply for permanent residency, which was a key incentive to lure skilled staff to Australia.

Zoccali and Perry said the standards of the Australian restaurant industry will decline as a result, damaging the tourism industry and wasting taxpayer funding.

“Service is a skill. If you don’t think that, it’s crazy to go out and promote restaurants and tourism around the world and waste our money,” he told Lateline.

“Because if we don’t deliver on the service promise when people come to Australia, they’re not going to come back — it’s as simple as that.”

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