The Federal Government’s announcement of half-price flights to Merimbula this autumn and early winter has renewed optimism on the NSW Far South Coast, but will do less to boost tourism further north.
People will be able to travel to the seaside town, known for its oysters and white beaches, and 17 other destinations in Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory for half the usual price between 1 April and 30 July, 2021.
There are 800,000 half-price airline tickets up for grabs, which will send around 44,000 tourists to the chosen NSW South Coast destinations in a bid to help businesses still reeling from the Black Summer bushfires, and struggling through COVID-19, to get back on their feet.
Sapphire Coast Destination Marketing’s managing director, Anthony Osborne, said he is surprised to see Merimbula on the list.
“I wasn’t expecting Merimbula to be included but I do think we’re a worthy participant in the program after being hammered by border closures, bushfires and COVID-19,” he said.
The NSW Far South Coast lost its regular visitors from Victoria when the Princes Highway closed during the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020, and then when the state border closed during the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020-2021.
As a result, half of Bega Valley’s businesses, which includes Merimbula, say they lack confidence in the viability of their operations in 2021.
“Most of our visitors come by road, but we’re certainly seeing the number of people coming via the airport grow over time,” said Mr Osborne.
“Qantas now flies from Sydney to Merimbula, and Melbourne to Merimbula. We’ve seen pleasing numbers come via the Sydney to Merimbula flight, particularly while people haven’t been able to travel overseas or outside of NSW. Hopefully we can tap into the Melbourne market with people who haven’t visited previously.”
However, people flying from Sydney or Merimbula to Moruya, which directs traffic to the NSW South Coast town of Batemans Bay, will have to pay full price.
Andy Johns, the owner of Corrigans Cove resort in Batemans Bay, said he welcomed “any support” for the tourism industry, but acknowledged the government’s new $1.2 billion package will have more benefit to businesses further south than in his town or further north.
“Eighty per cent of our clientele are from Canberra, although we do get some clientele from Eden and Merimbula,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a huge chunk, but any chunk is going to improve bums on seats and people in beds.”
Mr Johns said the one-off $10,000 grants for businesses impacted by bushfires, and $150,000 dollar-for-dollar grants for upgrading accommodation from Destination NSW will do more for his business.
“That would make a much bigger difference than this current scheme they’ve got going,” he said. “We could renovate 20 of our rooms, which we couldn’t previously.”
Autumn and winter may not seem the best time to travel to the coast, but Mr Osborne said it’s a great time to explore while the area isn’t as busy.
“Locals know autumn and early winter is the best time of the year,” he said. “It’s very mild in temperature, the water is still warm and there’s a lot of open space in the national parks, on our rivers and in our restaurants and hinterland towns.
“It’s a great time to explore and a good time of the year to take fishing charters or ocean wilderness charters, and check out the beautiful local produce and oysters. I think we’ve got a lot to offer at that time of the year.”
Mr Johns also said this period is a quieter time for business on the NSW South Coast, making it a good time for the government to release the stimulus.
The other destinations included in the $1.2 million government package are Adelaide, Broome, Darwin, the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Hobart, Kangaroo Island, Lasseter and Alice Springs, Merimbula, Tasmania (Launceston, Devonport and Burnie), the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Townsville, Tropical North Queensland, and Whitsundays and Mackay region.
The half-price tickets will be available on airline websites from 1 April, 2021.
Mr Osborne said he hopes the government continues to release financial packages targeted at the tourism industry.