Regions booming as Melbourne suffers in two-tier tourism recovery

The indefinite ban on international travel and enthusiastic Melburnians fanning through the regions after months of lockdown are driving a two-tier tourism recovery that may deliver the best summer ever to parts of the state while Melbourne endures one of its worst.

The city relies on foreign and interstate visitors for more than 70 per cent of its tourism spend and its woes have been worsened by the ongoing uncertainty in the events sector and a 30 per cent crowd limit on the Boxing Day test, according to the Victorian Tourism Industry Council.

Melbourne’s recovery has been further cast into uncertainty by coronavirus outbreaks in Sydney which are shutting down Christmas travel between the nation’s two biggest cities.

Figures from Deloitte Access Economics suggested regional areas were more insulated from the dearth of foreign or Sydney sightseers because 80 per cent of the tourism revenue in a typical year came from fellow Victorians.

Victorians spend about $17 billion a year on overseas travel and much of this would be redirected locally so long as international destinations remained off-limits, Deloitte’s Adele Labine-Romain said.

The state government is also encouraging Victorians to hit the road by giving away 70,000 regional travel vouchers valued at $200 each and redeemable with a minimum out-of-pocket spend of $400 on tourism.

“The prospect of greater spending by both Victorians, and Australians more broadly, in regions could make for an exceptionally strong summer season for regional Victoria,” Ms Labine-Romain said. “Melbourne will face a much greater challenge.”

Data compiled by online travel booking website Wotif shows Victorian holiday spots make up nine of the top 10 most sought-after places for Victorians planning to travel between December 20 and January 15. This is up from six of the 10 most popular destinations for the same period last year.

The Great Ocean Road topped the 2020 list and bumped Melbourne to second, while the Gold Coast slipped to seventh after being overtaken by Geelong, Gippsland and Phillip Island.

Separate analysis from fellow travel booking website Expedia reported a 40 per cent increase in Victorian searches for holiday destinations within the state.

For Australian travellers overall, Melbourne has plummeted from the most popular destination in the country to ninth, behind Cairns and Adelaide, according to Wotif.

Wotif senior travel expert Chris Milligan believed the Melbourne drop-off was because the winter lockdown meant people had less time to consider the city as summer holiday.

Victorian Tourism Industry Council chief executive Felicia Mariani said Melbourne accommodation providers had hoped the Boxing Day test match would kickstart business, but had been left disappointed by the 30 per cent cap on crowd size.

“The concern from among the operators is that it’s probably predominantly Victorians with those tickets, so where they were hoping for a burst of interstate visitation, which they desperately need, it’s not going to happen,” she said.

Meanwhile, other smaller festivals and business events, which Ms Mariani said were a major contributor to the tourism economy, were “struggling to get answers back” from Victorian authorities about whether they could go head.

Quest Royal Gardens franchisee Anthony Murphy said business had picked up since the lockdown ended, but forward bookings were down on a normal year.

“What we’re seeing is that people are booking late. It’s still a pretty fluid situation that we’re dealing with. People are being cautious about not booking too far ahead," he said.

Compare this to the East Gippsland town of Mallacoota, hit with dual blows of bushfires and the pandemic, which has nearly all accommodation booked out through January, according the Visit Mallacoota president Grant Cockburn.

Wotif reported a fivefold increase in searches for Gippsland accommodation compared with last year.

Quest chief operations officer David Mansfield said he was surprised by the resilience of the corporate travel sector and he expected this drive up CBD bookings next year.

“This notion that the corporate traveller will do business by Zoom is not correct,” he said. “We’re not seeing that and we don’t believe that will be sustainable.”

A Health Department spokesman said the Sydney outbreak made it clear the pandemic was not over.

“The Chief Health Officer has advised that 30,000 patrons per day can be safely managed at the MCG because of the ability of the ground manager to ensure physical distancing for fans entering the stadium and within the designated seating zones,” he said.

Figures released by Tourism Research Australia last week showed almost $10 billion had been stripped from the Victorian industry between January to September compared to the same period last year.

Ms Mariani said the catastrophic loss meant even the most successful destinations this summer faced an uphill battle to ongoing viability.

“One season does not a recovery make,” she said. “The job is not done.”

With Benjamin Preiss

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