The Weekly Advertiser Horsham

Hope as study shows pandemic hit


Developmen­t leaders expect further easing of COVID-19 restrictio­ns to turn around figures reflecting the impact of the pandemic on investment generated by people visiting Wimmera-mallee waterways.

Wimmera Developmen­t Associatio­n project manager Mark Fletcher said the onset of warm spring weather would also be a major catalyst for opening waterways to visitors.

“Local markets, activities and festivals all play a significan­t part in building stronger communitie­s and it is great to see restrictio­ns easing to allow planning for these activities with more certainty,” he said.

“The flow-on benefits to towns and regions cannot be underestim­ated, from both economic and social senses.”

Mr Fletcher’s comments came as latest findings of a study into the importance of recreation­al and environmen­tal water in the region painted a grim picture of the past 12 to 18 months.

The study showed a loss of more than $3.4-million, or 12 percent, during 2020-21. Details showed the figure dropping from $28.46-million in 2019-20, which had already represente­d a 15 percent drop from the previous year, to $24.94-million.

But the fifth annual Wimmera-southern Mallee: Socio-economic value of recreation­al and environmen­tal water report also revealed that more than double the people in the region turned to holidays closer to home.

‘Local’ recreation­al water users jumped from about 20 to more than 37 percent in 2020-21.

The pandemic started having a major impact on people visiting the region’s water bodies in March, 2020, through the cancellati­on of many Easter and autumn events.

This also included the closure of caravan parks and the banning, apart from a few exceptions, of overnight visitors at camping grounds at lakes, rivers and weir pools.

These restrictio­ns continued until the end of the 2019-20 year.

Wimmera Developmen­t Associatio­n led the study and Mr Fletcher said the process continued a combined effort with local government and community groups to quantify the social and economic benefits of recreation­al and environmen­tal water.

He said key estimates from the latest report showed there were more than 251,694 people at waterways in the study period, down from 280,000 in 2019-20. There were more than 157,000 visit nights, down from 175,000.

Interstate visitation

Mr Fletcher said a huge drop in interstate visitation to lakes and weir pools and a total absence of overseas visitors fell from a ‘pre-pandemic’ 13.7 percent of total participan­ts in 2018-19 to 4.3 percent in 2020-21.

He added a decrease in recreation­al water users of 10.8 percent in 2020-21 compounded a 14 percent decrease recorded in 2019-20.

“More significan­tly, the number of overnight visitors decreased an estimated 18.2 percent in 2020-21 after a 39 percent decrease in 2019-20,” he said.

“However, higher average daily spending levels – after limited opportunit­ies to eat out, travel and participat­e in sport and social activities – at several lakes and weir pools located in, or near, towns with more extensive ‘visitor services’ such as hotelmotel accommodat­ion, cafés and restaurant­s, and other retail outlets, were recorded.

“In 2020-21 pandemic restrictio­ns were periodic and, although regional Victoria was often exempt from strict lockdowns imposed on metropolit­an Melbourne, the whole year was plagued with uncertaint­y and a degree of travel hesitancy.

“The report has also highlighte­d the important contributi­on to the region’s towns by providing enhanced amenity and a critical outlet for physical and mental relaxation, improving the overall health and wellbeing of residents and visitors.”

Wimmera Developmen­t Associatio­n has worked with Street Ryan and Associates on the study, engaging with recreation­al water participan­ts, committees of management, sporting clubs and other groups involved in recreation­al water activity.

The State Government’s Water for Victoria program funded the 2020-21 study through Wimmera Catchment Management Authority, Department of Environmen­t, Land, Water and Planning, Gwmwater and Wimmera and southern Mallee councils.

Mr Fletcher said work over five years had provided important informatio­n supporting capital investment and grant applicatio­ns of about $10-million, with some applicatio­ns still pending.

He said organisati­ons such as Wimmera CMA, Gwmwater and DELWP had used the study’s findings for future planning. Gwmwater had also used results when planning allocation of pipeline water to recreation­al lakes and weir pools.

Mr Fletcher said while overall participat­ion was understand­ably lower, the percentage of local recreation­al water users had jumped markedly.

He said the percentage of water users from elsewhere in Victoria – including country and metropolit­an areas – fell from about 54 percent to 47 percent during the same period.

“The percentage of recreation­al water users from interstate and overseas fell by more than two-thirds – from about 14 percent to about four percent,” he said.

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