Cobargo Hotel publican Dave Allen welcomes the return of tourists wanting to support bushfire affected regions this October long weekend but says he is struggling to find staff to cater for them.
“Our motel is booked out and we are serving double the number of people from this time last year,” he said.
“It’s great but stressful because I can’t get the chefs or waiters I need because a lot of people are earning enough on JobKeeper or JobSeeker.
“On the flip side, JobKeeper, JobSeeker, bushfire grants and early access to pensions means people have money to spend, but there’s not a lot for people to do here. There aren’t any festivals or shows and people can’t go to the cinema.”
The NSW South Coast operator isn’t alone. Accommodation is all but fully booked from the Shoalhaven to Eden this long weekend.
While spring is a busy time for the region, visitor numbers are higher than usual with NSW and ACT residents eager to get away during the school holidays and long weekend.
Phones were ringing off the hook at visitor information centres in Shoalhaven, Narooma, Bermagui, Merimbula, Cobargo and Eden a week ahead of the long weekend, with people trying to find last-minute accommodation and activities.
“There have been 70-80 people through the doors here since I opened at 9 am today,” said Diane at Narooma Visitor Information Centre on Tuesday, 29 September.
“I wondered how busy it would be with Victoria closed, but everyone’s flooded to the coast because of the whales and COVID-19 restrictions.”
A ‘mega pod’ of humpback whales have been on display on the NSW South Coast since early September. However, interest in the area was rising well before then.
“We have been busier than usual since the bushfires because people feel sorry for us,” said an employee at Cobargo Tourist Information Centre. “They want to come here and hit the little shops, buy things and do their bit. COVID-19 has barely slowed us down.”
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Cobargo Hotel’s accommodation has also been booked out since the bushfires, not only by visitors but also contractors from Canberra and Batemans Bay who are helping with the rebuild.
People who were evacuated in January due to the bushfires also deferred their accommodation booking to October and Christmas, said Bermagui Visitor Information Centre coordinator Christine Bimson.
“It’s so nice to see people queuing outside our shops again,” she said. “Nowhere was hit harder by the bushfires than Bermagui, Cobargo, Wandella and Brogo. Bermagui had the fire tearing at its doorstep. We lost so many homes and outlying infrastructure and didn’t have power, water or internet for 10 days which meant shops couldn’t open.
“Businesses were on their knees after the bushfires, and COVID-19 put them on their bellies.”
Like Cobargo, many activities – particularly whale tours – are booked out in Bermagui and Merimbula during the long weekend and school holidays.
“The whale tours are booked up here for days because of the interest in the whales and because operators can’t have a full boat – they can only let 30 on instead of 70 during COVID-19 restrictions,” said Merimbula Visitor Information Centre volunteer Gwen Langthorne.
A Shoalhaven resident said she is glad people will be visiting during the long weekend and school holidays but hopes visitors maintain social distancing and hygiene practices to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the area, and so she and others can travel at a later date.
There were only five active cases in the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District on Wednesday and many South Coast residents haven’t been able to leave their homes since the bushfires.
“A lot of us don’t want to leave in case the tradies we’ve been waiting on are available to help with our rebuild,” said the Cobargo Tourist Information Centre employee.
She and her husband lost outlying buildings on their property in the bushfires and saw neighbours lose their entire homes.
However, she is excited that COVID-19 restrictions are encouraging people to explore what is on offer locally and can’t wait to do the same.
“There are always places we put off because we go overseas,” she said. “Now is the perfect opportunity to make a list and go and see the places we’ve put off. Some are fabulous.”
The South Coast isn’t the only area celebrating a visitor boom. Anyone heading inland to the Southern Highlands, Goulburn Mulwaree or Upper Lachlan Shire will also struggle to find accommodation this long weekend.
Visitors from Sydney and Canberra, in particular, have been heading to these regional areas in search of a change of scenery and fresh air, report tourism managers. There have also been very few COVID-19 cases in these areas.
“Since the beginning of spring, our visitor numbers have been on the rise,” said Sarah Ruberto, business manager, marketing, events and culture, at Goulburn Mulwaree Council.
“We are finding that COVID-19 has attributed to travel throughout NSW. However, we are also finding that many visitors have a new perspective on regional travel and are delighted with what we have to offer. We have experienced quite a few visitors who have stated they will definitely return and continue to travel throughout NSW.”