‘Heartbreaking’ losses push border town tourism businesses to brink

Tourism businesses hit by back-to-back visitor wipeouts during their peak summer seasons require financial assistance to survive with extraordinary run of bad luck of bushfires then coronavirus, according to businesses owners, industry and political representatives.

Many towns located within striking distance of the NSW-Victorian border were cleared of tourists by the Black Summer bushfires over the previous summer. And it happened again this summer when the Victorian government triggered an exodus of visitors to NSW as it announced a snap border lockdown with 24 hours notice.

The tourism industry says businesses in border communities like Echuca and Moama, on opposites sides of the Murray River, will need ongoing financial assistance in the wake of coronavirus. Credit:Visit Victoria/Robert Blackburn

Katrina Woods, owner of the Broken Oar Bar and Grill at Pambula on the NSW South Coast, less than an hour's drive from the Victorian border, said the timing of the border lockdown on New Year's Eve was "heartbreaking".

"Our businesses here are so seasonal. Our summer trade gets us through the rest of the year," Ms Woods said.

The local caravan park went from 100 per cent full to just 10 per cent capacity overnight, she said.

"New Year's Day is our busiest of the year. We were stocked to the hilt, but we had to throw so much out and we will never get that money back.

"The emotional toll of the last 12 months is enormous. It's still an amazing business, but my husband and I are emotionally so drained we've made the decision to put it on the market and regroup as a family."

Ms Woods said government support after the Black Summer fires, particularly to help meet rent payments, "100 per cent got us through" but this time around she doesn't know how "we'll carry through for the rest of the year".

Eden-Monaro MP Kristy McBain, whose electorate includes the tourism hotspots of the far south coast and NSW Snowy Mountains, said it had been "harrowing for businesses to lose their peak season two years in a row".

"Now is the time we need to really support those regions that are doing it tough. We've had floods, drought, bushfires, COVID and two border closures," Ms McBain said.

Eden-Monaro MP Kristy McBain, pictured with Labor leader Anthony Albanese, says businesses urgently need support.Credit:Wolter Peeters.

"I've had many accommodation providers, retail, and hospitality owners contact me and say they have to make some tough decisions on their businesses.

"We need to figure out how best to assist them, whether its through tourist travel vouchers, or business tax incentives, we need everything on the table."

The Murray River twin towns of Echuca and Moama have been particularly hard hit by border closures.

Moama contains many of the region's larger resorts and attractions. While it is geographically in NSW, it relies on Victorians for about 80 per cent of its tourists. The larger town of Echuca, on the Victorian side, houses many of Moama's hospitality staff, who face uncertain futures.

In late November, the local operators were celebrating the NSW government's decision to reopen the border to Victoria after 20 weeks of what locals termed a "multifaceted debacle".

Barely five weeks later, on New Year's Eve, it was Victoria's turn to close its borders to NSW.

Chief executive of Echuca Moama Tourism Kathryn Mackenzie said the latest closure could be the final straw for some operators unless the government provided financial relief.

"These are good businesses. They're not borderline businesses. They're robust. But these lockdowns with NSW and now Victoria it's just ravaging the destination," Ms Mackenzie said.

"Our operators were fully booked for January. One resort had 221 people in self-contained cabins. Now it's empty. Motels were full, now they're empty. Another operator just this week told me they've given back $400,000 in cancellations."

Victoria Tourism Industry Council chief executive Felicia Mariani said the industry needed targeted assistance beyond March, when JobSeeker is scheduled to end.

"We need some kind of targeted relief package that recognises the tourism industry was the first to be hit with all of the issues around coronavirus and that we will absolutely be the last industry to come out," Ms Mariani said.

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