Victoria tourism during COVID-19 lockdown: Regional tourism businesses brace for economic impact

As Greater Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire get to grips the return to Stage 3 restrictions due to COVID-19, Victoria's regional tourism operators are bracing for the economic fallout from the state's second shutdown.

During a busy summer season one of those operators, James Murphy, of Queenscliff Sea All Dolphin Swim on the Bellarine Peninsula, would oversee up to 50 staff in his nature-based business where guests swim with dolphins and Australian fur seals and whale watch from the 11-metre timber vessel the Maureen M.

While it is winter, today Mr Murphy, who operates out of Queenscliff Boat Harbour 90 minutes from Melbourne, is one of a staff of four; it's likely to remain at that number following the reimposed lockdown. There are few bookings for the coming weeks on his boat than can accommodate 25 people but has been capped at 10 since the pandemic to ensure safe social distancing.

"We switched back on three weeks ago [following the easing of restrictions] and while we discounted heavily, where kids were being sent out for free, we thought we should do it while we could and further insulate the business. It was absolutely worthwhile," Mr Murphy said.

"[But] I wasn't surprised by the latest lockdown and my call is that this is going to be affecting us economically for the next two to three years."

Mr Murphy said while an estimated 40 per cent of bookings were from Melburnians, regional Victorians supported the Bellarine Peninsula and Queenscliff "substantially" making up a further 40 per cent. The remainder were international guests.

"It's an unknown but I like to remain hopeful that we'll continue to get visitors from the regions. Today we saw 50 to 60 seals out there on the water, as well as sea eagles fishing, David Attenborough-style."

As part of the State Government's $534 million business support package announced on Friday, $40 million has been allocated to regional tourism businesses due to the return of Stage 3 restrictions.

Mr Murphy said for the next six weeks of restrictions he'd aim to run tours at weekends when weather conditions were suitable. The business that also runs surf lessons and when hosting schools can have up to three water tours a day of 25 students each time.

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"I'm taking it day by day to be honest. Ideally, we want people to be healthy and we want people to be coming down to enjoy the coastal lifestyle and have these experiences, whether it's with us or with other operators for scuba diving, fishing or surfing, whatever it may be," he said.

"But at this point I'm grateful for JobKeeper and for every customer that comes on board, now more so than ever."

"The 2019-2020 season will go down in the record books that's for sure."

Tourism expenditure in Victoria reached a record-breaking $31.6 billion in the year ending September 2019; regional Victoria generated $11.5 billion of that amount with 19.5 million domestic and international overnight visitors and 41.1 million domestic daytrip visitors.

Felicia Mariani, the chief executive of the Victorian Tourism Industry Council, said many regional operators had strong bookings right across the holiday period through July and some even into the end of August.

"You wouldn't call it a recovery but it was a nice little bump up from where they have been. But from the time the Premier [Daniel Andrews] stepped away from the microphone [announcing the reimposed lockdown on July 8] the phones started ringing and the cancellations started coming," Ms Mariani said.

"The reality is that the operators all had to stock up to do that [reopen]. They invested with money they really didn't have and now a week in and basically the bottom's been pulled out again."

Ms Mariani said that while operators had received cancellations from interstate visitors, especially in the Grampians and along the Murray River in those border areas with South Australia and NSW, the reality was that operators, especially accommodation providers, derived the lion's share of their business from the Greater Melbourne region, so those cancellations didn't hurt as much.

"And what operators are telling me is that the rate of cancellation occurring from this second shut-down is coming in at a far more rapid pace than they did when the first period of hibernation happened in the middle of March."

While key tourism regions such as the Great Ocean Road, the High Country and Gippsland have been spared from the latest lockdown, Yarra Ranges and the Mornington Peninsula regions fall into the Greater Melbourne area, and have had to close their doors.

Ms Mariani remains hopeful that residents from regional Victoria outside of Greater Melbourne and Mitchell Shire would continue to travel to other regions in the state.

"We still have restaurants and cafes, we still have museums and galleries, we still have attractions and wineries in regional Victoria and we need regional Victorians to travel as that's the only thing that's going to sustain operators through the next six weeks."

Meanwhile, in the King Valley in the state's north-east, Christian Dal Zotto of Dal Zotto Wines said it was difficult to guess future visitor numbers at the family's restaurant and cellar door following the latest restrictions.

"I'm hoping that there will be support by the locals and that mix of tourists that are outside of these lockdown postcodes. There are still a few of those that means people can go out and travel," Mr Dal Zotto said.

He said regional tourism campaigns, following the recent bushfires and COVID-19 restrictions, which focused on supporting local operators and produce and moving to an online booking platform for the entire business had "translated directly to sales".

"Even at the cellar door it's all on a booking online platform. You book and you turn up for what is now sit-down tasting. It's a nicer experience and guests appreciate that a bit more."

"It's a new way of life post-COVID and everyone has been so much more grateful for what it is that they can experience. And we understand that the people that are still in lockdown are making a hell of a sacrifice for the rest of us to still be able to do what it is that we love."

See www.dolphinswims.com.au; dalzotto.com.au

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