Bushfire-hit Victorian businesses bounce back as government vouchers deliver reprieve

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A little more than 12 months ago, Rob Fraser stood in his front yard holding a soaking towel and preparing to make, if necessary, a potentially lifesaving jump into a nearby dam.

Flames from a spot fire sparked by the infernos that engulfed vast swathes of East Gippsland, Victoria, danced near his boutique cottage complex in Tambo Upper, north-east of Bairnsdale.

Much to the horror of his wife, Jeannie, the dam was to be the 77-year-old’s last resort if the fire came any closer.

Luckily it didn’t and the business lived to see another day.

But as the smoke started to clear in January 2020, Mr Fraser realised his troubles were only just beginning.

A year to forget

A year that started with evacuations ended with stay-at-home orders for businesses across Gippsland and Victoria’s north-east.

For Mr Fraser, January 2020 was the start of a harrowing period that saw his family-run business fall deeper and deeper into debt as travellers avoided the region.

He and Mrs Fraser took advantage of all the concessions available but quickly found themselves in the red due to a lack of income.

A surprisingly strong summer period helped lift the Frasers out of debt, however, and saw them return to profit for the first time since the disaster struck.

“Since Christmastime or just before Christmas, we’ve been so busy,” Mr Fraser said.

“It’s been really marvellous.

“A lot of it’s locals that are supporting us — we’re very pleased that things are finally getting better and we can catch up a bit.”

Stimulus leads to $85m spend

East Gippsland Shire was among the biggest beneficiaries of the state government’s summer stimulus package, which was designed to get Melburnians spending big in the bush.

About 52,000 vouchers from the scheme’s first tranche were used this summer.

The government said that amounted to an $85 million regional spending spree.

The vouchers, which were available for travel until January 22, entitled holders to $200 towards accommodation, experiences and tours in regional Victoria, provided they spent at least $400 on at least two nights’ accommodation.

The Mornington Peninsula, Bass Coast and East Gippsland shires were the most popular areas travellers visited to spend money from the scheme.

‘Linger longer’ mentality

The Colac-Otway Shire, on the great Ocean Road, was among the most sought-after destinations this summer.

The manager of the Dolphin Apartments in Apollo Bay, Emily Stephens, said up to 70 per cent of her Christmas holiday guests used the voucher to help pay for their stay.

“We did notice an influx, but we were already strongly booked,” she said.

“December was our best December so far — and that would have been a combination of the lockdown and everyone wanting to get out, and the travel vouchers.”

Ms Stephens said the vouchers had encouraged people to extend their stay.

“The government supporting and encouraging people to travel locally will certainly benefit not only accommodation, but it’s the fact people can stay a little bit longer,” she said.

“So they are going out for one more meal or having that extra breakfast in town.”

Lower uptake better than nothing

Voucher use was much lower in rural and remote areas.

Only 44 claims were made in the Buloke Shire, in the state’s north-west.

Rohan Mott is the owner of SkyMirror Gallery and accommodation in Sea Lake, near Lake Tyrrell.

He said despite the comparably low numbers the vouchers were still helpful, with four customers putting in claims after staying at his villas.

“[That’s] four that we did receive that we may not have otherwise received,” he said.

“I’m pretty sure there’s at least two of those that wouldn’t have travelled at that time of year if it wasn’t for those vouchers.”

Mr Mott said anything that encouraged people to visit the Mallee would benefit the shire, but said the lower numbers of claims reflected the town’s distance from the state capital.

“My guess would be the sheer numbers of people using the vouchers are probably coming out of Melbourne, and locations close to Melbourne are probably an attractive option for people that might not have travelled if it wasn’t for the vouchers,” he said.

Struggling in the city

The state government has extended the voucher system for businesses affected by the recent five-day lockdown in a move welcomed by the tourism industry.

The latest tranche will be extended to include metropolitan Melbourne stays.

Felicia Mariani, from the Victoria Tourism Industry Council, said capital cities had struggled because they were reliant on visitors that had fallen away amid the pandemic.

“We’re seeing great travel into regional areas here in Victoria and indeed all across Australia,” she said.

“But the capital cities are really struggling and largely because we’re just not seeing the level of interstate visitation we had hoped we would.”

Another 90,000 vouchers are scheduled to go out in the coming weeks to help subsidise short-stay holidays across the state.

“Our hotels across metropolitan Melbourne, they’ve been operating for many months at 10, 15, 20 per cent occupancy levels,” Ms Mariani said.

More vouchers to come

The State Government said it was confident the next round of vouchers would give Melbourne accommodation and tourism providers the boost they needed.

“These vouchers have been popular with Victorian travellers and provided a substantial boost to tourism businesses and workers across the state,” tourism minister Martin Pakula said.

“We know that the next rounds – including for greater Melbourne – will be taken up quickly and that’s great news for everyone.”

For the Frasers, the most exciting news is a lot closer to home.

“I’ve got to probably put a thank-you in in a local paper to thank all those lovely people,” Mr Fraser said.

“We’re very, very lucky, really — we’re able to catch-up with all of our payments and pay everyone back.

“We’ve gone from the red into the black now.

“So that’s wonderful, and we couldn’t have done it without the locals around here and their support.”

The most visited areas where vouchers were utilised

LGA Claims in first voucher round
Alpine Shire Council          2,996
Ararat Rural City Council             189
Ballarat City Council          1,701
Bass Coast Shire Council          4,588
Baw Baw Shire Council             312
Benalla Rural City Council               84
Buloke Shire Council               44
Campaspe Shire Council             904
Cardinia Shire Council             104
Central Goldfields Shire Council             113
Colac-Otway Shire Council          2,984
Corangamite Shire Council             785
East Gippsland Shire Council          4,125
Falls Creek Alpine resort               64
Frankston City Council             111
French Island (Unincorporated)                 7
Gabo island                 1
Gannawarra Shire Council               84
Glenelg Shire Council             645
Golden Plains Shire Council               37
Greater Bendigo City Council          1,143
Greater Geelong City Council          2,952
Greater Shepparton City Council             258
Hepburn Shire Council          2,392
Hindmarsh Shire Council               19
Horsham Rural City Council             258
Indigo Shire Council             663
Lake Mountain Alpine Resort                 5
Latrobe City Council             264
Loddon Shire Council               38
Macedon Ranges Shire Council             424
Mansfield Shire Council             723
Mildura Rural City Council             590
Mitchell Shire Council             111
Moira Shire Council             651
Moorabool Shire Council               69
Mornington Peninsula Shire Council          5,078
Mount Alexander Shire Council             262
Mount Baw Baw Alpine Resort                 5
Mount Buller Alpine Resort               25
Mount Hotham Alpine Resort               20
Moyne Shire Council          1,257
Murrindindi Shire Council             801
Nillumbik Shire Council               36
Northern Grampians Shire Council          1,775
Pyrenees Shire Council               67
Queenscliffe Borough             443
South Gippsland Shire Council          1,701
Southern Grampians Shire Council             398
Strathbogie Shire Council             344
Surf Coast Shire Council          3,128
Swan Hill Rural City Council             314
Towong Shire Council               71
Wangaratta Rural City Council             457
Warrnambool City Council          2,310
Wellington Shire Council             861
West Wimmera Shire Council               24
Wodonga City Council             223
Yarra Ranges Shire Council          1,965
Yarriambiack Shire Council               16
Total claims        52,019

Supplied: Victorian Government

By Daniel Miles and Sarah Jane Bell (Original ABC Article)