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.
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.