Melbourne CBD: Freebies and events key to enticing crowds back to city centre

Confucian curse declares, "may you live in interesting times". But in Chinatown no one ever thought it could involve the challenge of operating a tourism attraction in a beleaguered Central Business District during a pandemic.

But in Little Bourke Street, in the thick of the CBD, where the Museum of Chinese Australian History is reopening this weekend after the recent lockdown, the local burghers are hoping to defy the medical malediction of COVID-19 with a dumpling-led recovery.

As one way to entice visitors back to Chinatown, between 12 pm and 3 pm tomorrow (Sunday, June 27), lucky visitors will be served free zongzi-style, or leaf-wrapped rice dumpling from a special trolley in Chinatown Square, Cohen Place, off Little Bourke Street.

 "I can't wait to see the hustle and bustle of Chinatown come back," says Eng Lim, vice-president of the Chinatown Precinct Association. "The idea is to bring people back to Chinatown for a meal or a snack, perhaps after some shopping."

Chinatown's custodians, who know all too well that central business districts are also central tourism districts, have also organised a traditional dragon boat festival, with one of the vessels to be displayed, as an additional attraction to draw back the crowds.

As small a gesture as the gratis dumplings may be, it represents one, appetising part of a concerted effort to attract visitors back to the city centre, with other CBD-based institutions such as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) also reopening.

Major events still have their place but the tourism industry and government agencies are increasingly looking to develop smaller, niche events and "activations" (the new buzz word) to help resuscitate the city's less than thumping heart.

For instance, the City of Melbourne this week launched a campaign, christened "FOMO Freebies", which provides giveaways from participating venues, including nights at leading hotels such as the Sofitel on Collins and the Westin Melbourne, until July 18. The campaign is being funded through the $100 million Melbourne City Recovery Fund in partnership with the Victorian government.

The lord mayor of Melbourne, Sally Capp, says the giveaways were snapped up each day within the space of five to 45 minutes.

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"Festivals, events and activations are key to bringing the buzz back to the city," she says, "and they provide a major boost to small businesses operating across accommodation, tourism, hospitality and retail sectors and accommodation providers to create enticing experiences that will boost Melbourne's economic recovery."

Dean Long, chief executive of the Accommodation Association, says that while voucher-like offers are welcome they're not the "complete panacea". He agrees that CBDs need more "precinct activations" to restore vibrancy, particularly during the week with fewer office workers and visitors around.  CBDs have become the "collateral damage" of the pandemic, says Felicia Mariani, chief executive of the Victorian Tourism Council.

  She would like to see the Victorian government replicate a special accommodation voucher campaign that proved extremely successful in South Australia and focus it on Sundays to Thursdays when demand for hotel stay is at its lowest.

Museums Victoria's Senior Curator of the History of Collections, Rebecca Carland, said their latest exhibition sits at the "beautiful intersection" between old collections and collaborations with First Peoples. She said the "extremely rare" Kara kara crystalline nugget, which was found in 1853 near the central Victorian town of Heathcote, is a centrepiece of the experience.

Kara kara is the Dja Dja Wurrung word for gold, and Aboriginal elders Uncle Larry Walsh and Aunty Justice Nelson assisted the Melbourne Museum to connect the nugget back to its original home.

"They don't see it as treasure because it's worth hundreds of thousands of dollars ... For them, it's treasure because it's part of country, it's come from country and it remains part of country," Ms Carland said. "We close the exhibition with a plea from Uncle Larry to all of us to really  care for country. We hope to inspire visitors as they leave the exhibition to care for the greatest treasure, which is the natural world itself."

Back in Chinatown, Miss Lim is planning another trick (sorry, activation) to try and float the public's dragon boat and direct them back to the CBD. After Melburnians missed out on Valentine's Day  this year due to the pandemic, she hopes Chinatown will be the setting for a big Chinese Valentine's Day celebration, which falls on Saturday, August 14.

with Ashleigh McMillan

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