Australian tourism and COVID-19: Luxury properties booming as wealthy Australians holiday at home

They've endured interminable lockdowns. They've faced incessant border closures. They've even been banned from re-entering their own state. But affluent Australians are refusing to abandon life's little - and large - luxuries and, when it comes to travel, they're finding surer ways of securing them.

The national uncertainty over sudden and extended state and territory border closures and lockdowns is seeing those who can afford it embrace more reliable and less changeable intrastate luxury travel.

Next week, Melburnians will be able to indulge even closer to home at what's being touted as the first true "luxury lifestyle hotel" to open in the city for 25 years.

The lavish five-star 294-room W Melbourne, part of the imposing Collins Arch Precinct complex on the corner of Flinders Lane and Market Street and with rooms ranging from $399 to $1269 per night, is due to open next Thursday.

Sean Hunt, area vice president of the parent company, Marriott, says Australians are "craving luxury experiences" with international travel still on indefinite hold.

"The opening of W Melbourne signals the first major hotel opening since the lockdown," Mr Hunt says, with pre-opening bookings "very strong", particularly for the hotel's most luxurious suites. "I believe it will inspire Melburnians to come back to the Melbourne CBD, and to experience the city's culture."

He says the luxury staycation market at Marriott, of which the W brand is part, is "leading the way" for the group as we l seek "unique experiences" on our doorsteps.

Brian Barry co-owns, with wife Karina, the NSW Central Coast's adults-only Pretty Beach House, a member of the exclusive Luxury Lodges of Australia group, where inclusive rates start from $2000 per night.

Despite their lavish retreat's pretty steep tariffs, the couple has not only seen a sharp increase in bookings at Pretty Beach House, which overlooks Bouddi National Park and the eponymous stretch of sand, in the past six months, their overseas travel-denied guests are opting to stay for longer.

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"We saw a remarkable surge in bookings following the lifting of travel restrictions in June 2020," says Mr Barry. "Many guests, whilst staying at Pretty Beach House indicated that they would normally be travelling overseas at this time.

"With savings made within budgets, which now don't involve international air fares, the average length of stay increases. Having had the PBH experience, many of these guests have now returned on multiple occasions already."

At Brae, the nation's most acclaimed regional restaurant, located at Birregurra, just over 90 minutes south-west of Melbourne, occupancy rates for luxurious suites costing between $635 to $890, reached 97 per cent in December.

"It's a really good sign that Australians are looking for ways to indulge in their own backyards," says operations manager Julianne Bagnato. "Thankfully many guests are also now more flexible in terms of mid-week visits so the daily restrictions on restaurant numbers haven't had such a severe impact on us."

At the iconic Lake House in Daylesford, an hour and a half north-west of Melbourne, guests are staying longer with the property experiencing a "totally booked out" day spa and high room occupancies at $880 a night including breakfast and dinner, according to Larissa Wolf-Tasker, the hotel's brand manager,

"Ever since the Cup we've seen a heavy demand," she says. "Some of the people who in the past have had to cancel three or four times have finally been able to come.

"We've also seen a whole new clientele who have always wanted to visit but have never got around to it because they've been on overseas or business trips."

The "safer to indulge in your own backyard" phenomenon is evident in NSW as well, where travel has been restricted to intrastate trips for the past few months.

James Baillie, owner of Baillie Lodges, says that his luxurious five-star Capella Lodge on Lord Howe Island (gazetted as regional NSW), which starts from $850 per person per night for a minimum two night stay, has been in high demand.

"Forward bookings are off the charts, right into 2022," he says. "There is a real FOMO [fear of missing out] among the well-heeled domestic market who need to have something locked in and booked in case they can't travel overseas."

But for every bright spot in Australia's troubled tourism scene, there's a gloomy one. Another of Mr Baillie's other luxury properties, Longitude 131, at Uluru is not faring quite as well due to prevailing border closures and uncertainties.

Reservations with extremely "short lead times" are now common as guests await the "green light" from at times mercurial governments on borders and flights.

"Longitude 131 Uluru has suffered due to stop-start border closures and also a high dependence on international travellers who would normally make up the majority of guests during the warmer summer months," says Mr Baillie.

"That said, we have been welcoming an increasing number of Australians who liken the experience to Africa where activities are undertaken in the cooler mornings and evenings, leaving the days to relax, indulge and hydrate - our open bar has never been more popular."

Back in Melbourne, the city can look forward to even more convenient luxury staycation options with a new Ritz-Carlton hotel due to open this year, along with a branch of the funky Hong Kong-based Ovolo brand in South Yarra.

Back in NSW, Flash Jacks, a new boutique-style property in Gundagai, which lies about half-way between Sydney and Melbourne, has been suffering from the reduced traffic due to the border closure between Victoria and NSW.

However, Flash Jacks' David Ferguson, the co-owner with wife Emelia, says that his other establishment at Gundagai, known as Kimo Estate is booming with its distinctive luxury glamping eco-huts, which cost $500 per night for those able to secure one, booked out for the next 11 months with plans to build more.

Mr Ferguson attributes such success to having devoted much of the original lockdown to building a social media profile for the eco-huts. However, plans to open a restaurant at Flash Jacks, a former Catholic convent and schoolhouse, have been postponed because "you could open one day and have to close the next."

Sean Hunt, the giant Marriott group's area vice president, says Australians are "craving luxury experiences" with international travel still on indefinite hold due to federal government restrictions.

Mr Hunt says the luxury staycation market at Marriott, which is set to open a new W Melbourne next week, with a W Sydney under construction in The Ribbon building at Darling Harbour, is "leading the way" for the group as we seek "unique experiences" on our doorsteps.

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