When Victorian health officials announced an impending NSW border closure on New Year’s Eve, thousands of interstate visitors to the NSW Sapphire Coast packed their bags in a “mad panic” that reminded Big 4 Tathra owner Greg McKay of last season’s bushfire evacuations.
“The next day had an eerily similar feel to last year when bushfires ended our season before it even started,” he said.
Mr McKay said the people forced to flee were the same holidaymakers who had to leave the previous year due to the bushfires, which “adds to the heartache”.
The popular holiday destination was in full swing on the afternoon of 31 December when it dawned on Victorian guests – who had the majority of sites at the park – that they needed to pack up their campsites immediately.
“It was just terrible,” Mr McKay said.
“You had families kicking back, relaxing, enjoying themselves, and people had already started having a few beers or wines, looking forward to New Year.”
When the news broke in the late afternoon, he said it took about 20 minutes for Victorians to “fully digest the context of it”.
Apart from the emotional toll of another dramatic end to an annual holiday, packing up hundreds of campsites was a logistical nightmare.
“It’s not a five-minute job, it takes a couple of hours.”
Kids were crying and parents were on edge, hurriedly folding, tidying, untying, zipping and stuffing mountains of equipment back into boxes and bags.
In the midst of the chaos, Mr McKay said guests from NSW and ACT rallied to help overwhelmed families pack up and prepare to leave.
Victorians make up around 80% of visitors to the Sapphire Coast, meaning the local economy has had the wind taken out of its sails abruptly for the second year in a row.
Hoping to inspire new guests from Canberra and regional NSW, Sapphire Coast tourism operators are drawing attention to the virtues of visiting the area during a peak season that looks more like the off season.
With no crowds, no queues, quiet beaches and more than enough fresh seafood to go around, Bega Valley Shire mayor Russell Fitzpatrick described the kind of holiday tourists dream about as they stand sweating in a long line for fish and chips.
“Beautiful weather, pristine water, deserted beaches, an abundance of oysters, plenty of parking, amazing accommodation and locals who are thrilled to see you – the list of reasons to visit goes on and on.”
The Sapphire Coast stretches from Bermagui in the north to Eden in the south, both sites that have had Covid-19 scares recently.
Two infected travellers from Victoria visited a hospitality venue in both coastal towns on 30 and 31 December, prompting Mr Fitzpatrick to encourage a surge in testing locally.
But with no locally acquired cases since, Mr McKay said it would have been safer for Victorians to stay put in Tathra, a Green Zone, rather than make an unplanned seven-hour drive overnight.
“They took people out of a safe environment and put them in a risky environment.”
He believed it was still possible to have a Covid-safe holiday in NSW Green Zones and the majority of travellers behaved responsibly.
“Enjoy your holiday, monitor your health, if there’s activity in your area consider going home.”
Local tourism expert and founder of The Destination Agency, Anthony Osborne, said the bushfire period last year resulted in a loss of $100 million in spending, one-third of the region’s yearly income.
Mr Osborne said “$30 million plus disappeared overnight” due the 1 January 2021 Victorian border closure to NSW, which also took an emotional toll on the community.
Some visitors from Victoria who drove to the region on 31 December had to hop back in their cars as soon as they arrived.
“It was mayhem,” he said.
Being so connected to Victoria and Melbourne, Mr Osborne said most of the visitors across the Sapphire Coast region were friends and relatives reuniting after a long year of Covid-19 lockdowns.
Backyards were full, the streets were stacked with cars and there were crowds for the first time in a long time.
“Everyone was saying, ‘It’s enormous, I’m so busy’, everyone had great optimism.”
“It’s a bit of a desert in some spots now.”
Ongoing uncertainty created by constantly evolving Covid-19 updates has meant tourism operators and visitors are forced to accept a level of risk when it comes to cancellations.
Having spoken to a variety of operators, Mr Osborne said some changed their policies to share the risk by keeping a deposit, and generally most were offering refunds.
“Two weeks out from the season we had huge demand.
“It’s very difficult to claw back.”
Mr McKay’s Big 4 holiday park in Tathra normally does a quarter of its turnover for the year in January.
“This month is when you like to be fully booked.
“Looking around now, I just can’t believe this place is not buzzing as usual.”
He said a few Victorian guests decided to stay and weather the storm, including one woman who will work remotely from the laidback coastal town until borders reopen.
“Next week is looking better than it did a few days ago, we managed to fill a few holes.”
He said the front desk was also fielding calls from people who were forced to cancel plans to go to popular Victorian holiday spots like Bright, the Great Ocean Road and Mornington Peninsula.
“There’s always a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel,” Mr McKay said.