We have all been moved by the recent devastating bushfires and weather events that have destroyed homes, forests, farms, townships and infrastructure, and taken the lives of people and animals across Australia.
We have been especially moved by the extraordinary efforts of our firefighters and emergency services personnel to keep us safe and protect property, as well as the efforts of volunteers and the defence force to provide victims and firefighters with sustenance and sanctuary in the face of these threats.
The scale of this disaster is immense — more than 8 million hectares, an area bigger than Texas, has been burnt. These are destinations where Australians holiday and adventure, particularly over the summer period. And of course, these regions are home to some of us too. For many of these areas, tourism is the backbone of their economy and the very things that attract us to holiday in these places may have been severely impacted by the bushfires.
The economic impact of the fires, coming as they did at peak tourism season, has been significant for so many regional areas, both those directly affected, and also those in similar regions where many have become nervous about travelling remotely.
Look, for example, to Gippsland. This is a beautiful and varied region in Victoria that offers everything from pristine beaches to mist-shrouded alpine mountains, rolling wine country and challenging 4WD tracks. Much of East Gippsland, including the incredible Alpine National Park, has suffered from the terrible bushfires. However, central and western Gippsland have been safe from bushfires this year, pristine and ready to welcome travellers looking for anything from fishing and watersports, camping, art and culture or a relaxed drink and delicious local food. As a result, these parts of Gippsland have seen a devastating loss in the tourism dollars they rely on to survive.
The Shoalhaven region of NSW has similarly seen a huge drop in tourism numbers during their peak season due to access road closures and fires nearby, despite the fact that the region's beautiful coastal towns and villages have themselves been untouched by fire. Tourism to Shoalhaven's incredible beaches and seaside towns is a huge part of their economy.
This provides a challenge for many communities, as some are desperate for tourism business today — such as the aforementioned Gippsland and Shoalhaven — while some are not ready (or safe) for visitation.
The first question for many around Australia has been, “How can we help?” It’s been inspiring to see Australians from every walk of life, in every part of the country, pulling together to help however they can. The hard work of volunteers, charities and other not-for-profit groups has been essential for dealing with the devastation. Now, as caravaners, we have the unique opportunity to help these communities by doing what we do best — journeying to them.
This provides a challenge for many communities, as some are desperate for tourism business today — such as the aforementioned parts of Gippsland — while some are not ready for visitation. In some cases, towns were physically razed, and the infrastructure will take a while to be up and running, but in other cases, the effect of the fires are still very raw. In ringing around to check on the readiness of some places to receive visitors, the pain is still apparent. Some paces have had unprecedented media attention and dealing with curious outsiders wanting to see the damage is taking a toll. When I asked one caravan park owner if it was okay to talk about tourism for her area, she burst into tears. It shows the level of pain out there and reinforces the need for us to cut the service providers some slack.
Every dollar we inject into a community helps, and even those on a limited income can play a role. We applaud the #gowithemptyeskies campaign, an effort to encourage Australian travellers to carry less with them and buy more locally.
If you’re experienced caravaners, you're probably used to meticulously planning your journeys to get the best value on fuel, food and other supplies. That's great as it's details like that which enable us to travel more often and farther than we otherwise would. But this year, consider planning a little less and spending a little more at your destination filling up the petrol tank and stocking up on supplies. You may be surprised by how much of an impact this can have.
RETURNING WHEN THEY'RE READY
On top of the fires, the recent rains have in fact presented a different set of dangers to emergency personnel and communities already dealing with so much. We are most certainly a land of "droughts and flooding rains", and it seems to be one disaster after another at present. So, we have to accept that not all facilities will be fully operational in some places as communities need time to clean up, rebuild, and to process the emotional impacts of their tragic losses before they can host visitors again.
Kangaroo Island in South Australia is an ideal example. There was a lot of ink spilled in the days and weeks after the island was hit by the fires debating whether it was right for tourists to flock to the area or stay away. Today the island is open, but in January the University of South Australia's sustainable tourism expert, Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, explained that the situation was far more complicated than a simple need to boost tourism numbers.
“The bushfire crisis on Kangaroo Island is heart-breaking, and for a holiday destination that relies on tourism, the summer holiday fires could not have come at a worse time,” Dr Higgins-Desbiolles said. In January, the fires were not yet out, CFS volunteers and defence personal are still being deployed, and infrastructure like the water treatment facilities was damaged.
Today, weeks later, the people of Kangaroo Island say they are ready for tourists to return, and authorities are encouraging us to do so. Some parts of the western side of Kangaroo Island are still undergoing cleanup, but the danger has passed, and most of Kangaroo Island is open and ready for much-needed business.
The fires smashed the eastern Victorian village of Mallacoota, and 120 houses were lost, and many more were damaged. Since then storms have wreaked even more devastation on the area, and it's only recently that roads have opened to the outside world after nearly eight weeks of being cut off. The navy evacuated holidaymakers, and even in late February many caravans and tents that had to be left behind are still unclaimed. With the main caravan park due to open in early March, things are looking up.
When I spoke with Peter York from Buckland's Jetty Boat Hire in late February, he hadn't had a boat out rented since 30th December, meaning he had lost nearly all his summer trade and 75% of his annual income. Mallacoota in winter is pretty quiet. Peter believed the community is ready for visitors and that businesses are looking forward to a bumper Easter season.
NSW SOUTH COAST
In the days following the New Years Eve fires on the south coast, thousands of holidaymakers were directed to leave the area. As well as the tragic loss of life, hundreds of houses went up in flames and business all took a hit to the main part of their annual income. As Peter from Longstocking Brewery in Pambua told me, business was running at 10% of the previous January, and his story is repeated across the area.
Further north, 79% of the Eurobodalla Shire was burned and Batemans Bay lost many residences. The road to Canberra was cut for a month and tourism collapsed.
Rain in mid-February finally extinguished all fires and the south coast is open for business. Tourist oriented villages like Cobargo and Mogo will take years to recover, but surviving shops are open amid the cleanup. Mogo Wildlife Park was expected to reopen on March and 10 demountable buildings have been erected in Mogo to help store owners until permanent shops are rebuilt.
Right across the south coast, from Eden to Nowra, are a variety of caravan parks open and ready to receive guests. Almost all National Parks have been closed since Christmas, but most are expected to reopen in early March.
The food bowl area around Stanthorpe in South East Queensland may have a cautionary tale to tell. According to Barry Murphy from the Stanthorpe Tourist Information Centre, when the fires ran through the area in September 2019, tourism stopped. Despite the loss of several houses, the effect of the fires was limited, but the publicity saw an immediate drop of 80% of travellers and things haven’t really improved. According to Barry the fires only added to the bad news about the drought, which continues in mid-February despite big falls elsewhere. He added that the town hadn’t been affected by the fires, but the tourists are still staying away.
Tourism Australia has created an easy to use tool to help track what regions are safe, partially impacted or currently unsafe. You can view that online at https://www.australia.com/en/travel-alerts.html. You can also see more national and state-based resources with all the latest updates on precisely what regions are safe or not in the sidebar titled 'Up to the Minute Info'.
In the months to come, expect to see local spotlight features more than ever, as we partner with councils around Australia to highlight the beautiful locations, exciting activities and welcoming communities that could host your next Aussie adventure. We’ll be working closely with local councils to ensure you know the best spots to return to, and the right times to do so —remember, first check to see if the region is safe and open for business. Second, if possible don’t cancel existing reservations, reschedule them. Third, donate to support the emergency services; the victims of the bushfires; the re-building programs or the wildlife support organisations.
This is not the first or the last, natural disaster Australia will face. As many commentators have suggested, we will see the true grit and resilience of these communities show through as they rebuild their towns and their economies, but they will need our collective help.
UP TO THE MINUTE INFO
Here is a list of relevant national and state resources, which provide you with up to date warnings and conditions on where and what is safe.
Tourism Australia Travel Alerts https://www.australia.com/en/travel-alerts.html
NEW SOUTH WALES
NSW Fires Near Me website and app https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/fire-information/fires-near-me
Traffic Updates via Live Traffic NSW https://www.livetraffic.com/desktop.html
Visit the Queensland Government Rural Fire Service website https://www.ruralfire.qld.gov.au/map/Pages/default.aspx
Traffic Updates via the QldTraffic website https://qldtraffic.qld.gov.au/
Check the South Australian Country Fire Service https://www.cfs.sa.gov.au/site/home.jsp
Traffic Updates at the Traffic SA website https://traffic.sa.gov.au/#mapo
Visit the Tasmanian Fire Service website http://www.fire.tas.gov.au/Show?pageId=colGMapBushfires
Traffic Updates via TasAlert website http://www.alert.tas.gov.au/Pages/Home.aspx
Visit the Country Fire Authority website https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/home and download the VicEmergency App: https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/plan-prepare/vicemergency-app
Traffic Updates via the VicTraffic app available https://traffic.vicroads.vic.gov.au/
Visit Emergency WA https://www.emergency.wa.gov.au/