Snap lockdown ‘disaster’ rocks regional tourism businesses

Tourism operators are reeling after the snap lockdown wiped out one of their busiest weekends of the year, prompting pleas for regional Victoria to be separated from tough restrictions imposed because of a coronavirus outbreak in Melbourne.

Many coastal and rural businesses are reliant on income over busy weekends after the end of the school holiday season, but they have been forced to temporarily stand down staff and dump masses of food they prepared for the Valentine’s Day weekend.

Torquay last October. Tourism operators in the region had hoped for a busy Valentine’s Day weekend.Credit:Paul Jeffers

The Victoria Tourism Industry Council estimates losses across the state could reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

Its chief executive, Felicia Mariani, said 454 business operators who responded to a snap survey on Saturday reported they had lost $8 million in cancellations and $2.2 million on stock and supplies.

She said the consequences of the lockdown would outlast the expected five-day period because consumer confidence had been shaken.

Great Ocean Road Tourism chairman Wayne Kayler-Thomson said the Surf Coast was also dealing with the loss of the Rip Curl Pro surfing contest, traditionally held at Bells Beach at Easter, after the World Surfing League’s 2021 opening event was moved to NSW.

Great Ocean Road Tourism chairman Wayne Kayler-Thomson.Credit:Joe Armao

He hoped Easter would still be busy, but said the major event had previously provided a substantial boost to the local economy.

“It just knocks confidence even further,” he said.

The Great Ocean Road Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery has been forced to cut staff during the lockdown as the business prepares to weather a huge turnover loss.

Co-owner Ian Neeland said the business would usually serve up to 2500 people on a busy Sunday, compared to just 24 customers on Sunday gone. Takings that day were just $600 compared with more than $30,000 on a busy summer Sunday.

“It’s a disaster”: Ian and Leanne Neeland of the Great Ocean Road Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery.

“It’s a disaster,” Mr Neeland said. He estimated his business would lose up to $10,000 in perishable food after preparing for a “massive weekend”.

Mr Neeland said the cancellation of the Rip Curl Pro would hurt many local businesses.

“That attracts huge crowds to the start of the Great Ocean Road.”

Premier Daniel Andrews said there had been no time to establish a “ring of steel” separating Melbourne from regional Victoria before the lockdown took effect.

Premier Daniel Andrews speaking to the media on Monday. Credit:Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

He insisted people would have gravitated to regional areas if uniform restrictions had not been applied across the state.

“That’s not a criticism, I think that is just a fact. And we have seen a bit of that over the last 12 months,” he said.

But independent Mildura MP Ali Cupper said regional communities with no recent cases of coronavirus were angry they were subject to the same restrictions as Melbourne.

“We’re picking up a level of rage that we haven’t seen yet,” she said.

The NSW and South Australian governments have both implemented “bubbles”, allowing movement across their borders in limited circumstances.

The Albury-Wodonga region has now notched up about 200 days without a case of coronavirus.

Wodonga mayor Kevin Poulton said the lockdown was taking its toll on communities along the Murray River. “They’re fatigued and confused,” he said.

Cr Poulton said restrictions should be eased in Wodonga if there were no cases nearby after Wednesday – even if the lockdown continued in Melbourne.

“I definitely think all of regional Victoria would feel that way,” he said.

The Liberal MP for Polwarth in western Victoria, Richard Riordan, joined calls for compensation from the state government.

In East Gippsland, Marlo Hotel co-owner Rachel Jones said the business had a huge weekend planned, having sold 500 tickets to a Pierce Brothers show.

“It’s really devastating,” she said. “All our accommodation, cancelled. Thousands of dollars in accommodation gone. You never get that back.”

Mornington Peninsula mayor Despi O’Connor said the response from the business community to the latest lockdown had been mixed.

Some hospitality businesses moved quickly to selling takeaways, but others had struggled. “For some it probably felt like too much,” she said.

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