FAMILIES are changing their holiday plans to avoid visiting bushfire-prone areas in country Victoria during summer, potentially costing the state's tourism industry millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Tourism chiefs say the risk of being trapped in bushland on a code red ''catastrophic'' day is turning people off the idea of holidaying in areas that may be under threat.
Schools and parents are also worried about sending children on holiday camps in areas surrounded by tinder-dry bushland such as Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road.
Cheap holidays on offer mainly in Asia and north Queensland are being booked by holidaymakers who would normally stay in picturesque country Victorian towns.
Tourism Minister Tim Holding admitted the summer holidays were looming as a major challenge for tourism operators facing significant financial losses. ''The real test is going to be when it's hot again and people are worried about bushfires come January and February next year,'' Mr Holding told The Sunday Age.
''On the one hand we're going to have the Government and operators promoting tourism in the area, but on the other hand if there's a code red day the emergency services and the Government will be saying, don't go to places that are bushfire-prone, it's not safe.
''And so there'll be tension there, but I think the community will understand that by and large it is safe to go to these iconic tourism destinations over summer but on those code red days people should stay away.''
The State Government launched a three-year, $7.3 million advertising campaign in August to encourage more visitors to Victoria. This was in addition to the joint Victorian and Commonwealth $10 million campaign to restore tourism in bushfire-affected areas.
Victoria Tourism Industry Council's chief executive Anthony McIntosh said the Black Saturday bushfires and the global financial crisis had caused people to rethink their summer holiday plans.
Mr McIntosh said bookings for coastal destinations remained strong but regional Victoria was struggling.
He pointed to towns in the Indigo Shire in Victoria's picturesque north-east (Rutherglen, Beechworth, Chiltern and Yackandandah); East Gippsland (Bairnsdale, Lakes Entrance, Omeo, Orbost, Paynesville); the Otways (Lorne, Colac, Lavers Hill, Wye River, Apollo Bay); and Daylesford and the Macedon Ranges, as being most likely to be affected by tourists wanting to avoid bushfire-prone areas.
Mr McIntosh said another concern for the tourism industry was holiday camps.
''As a result of the fires, it's fair to say there's an increased degree of nervousness amongst the school communities about engaging in camp-type activities during summer,'' he said.
Geelong Otway Tourism's executive director Roger Grant said the bushfire threat was preying on the minds of many holidaymakers. ''We've been holding discussions with police and emergency services about how best to inform visitors … as to where to go and what to do in a fire,'' he said.
''School camps is clearly a sector of the market that would be susceptible, particularly in the early part of next year when fire conditions are high.
Phillip Island Nature Parks chief executive Mark Manteit said most tours had been booked until the end of January. ''We do think our domestic tourist numbers are up because people are going to coastal areas rather than bushfire-affected areas,'' he said.
A spokeswoman for YMCA's summer camps being held on Phillip Island, Anglesea, Queenscliff and Mount Evelyn next month, said it was too early to say if bookings had been affected.
Ms Helen Packer, owner of the Willow Farm Retreat, north of Omeo, said there had been ''bugger all'' bookings for February.
''A lot of people are worried about the fires and we just don't know what's going to happen to business,'' she said.
Ms Linda Rayner, co-owner of the Lingarri Homestead at Beechworth, said she was not taking any bookings for January or February because of the fire risk.
The tourism industry provides almost 180,000 jobs and contributes $15 billion to the Victorian economy each year.