■ Local support needed for Wangaratta businesses to fill void as tourists depart
MOST Wangaratta retailers appear to be standing up well as the ongoing bushfire crisis decimates many North East tourism businesses.
Wangaratta mayor Cr Dean Rees said Wangaratta and surrounds that were not directly affected by fires have actually seen a rise in visitation, largely due to the Emergency Relief Centres located in Wangaratta.
The city’s Visitor Information Centre statistics are up by seven per cent.
“Since the lift of the State of Disaster declaration we have seen the community banding together, supporting each other and doing day trips to visit, eat and support our local businesses,” Cr Rees said.
“I have been amazed at the resilience of the business community, although some have scaled back their operations during the height of the emergency, businesses are already resuming business as usual.
“We are encouraging people to come visit us and our neighbouring shires of Alpine and Towong, book in your Labour Day weekend in March, and give your family and friends a friendly reminder it’s time to visit, bring your empty esky and spend with them.”
The Quality Hotel Wangaratta Gateway experienced mass cancellations as the North East became the centre of the bushfire disaster.
“We’ve had corporate bookings cancelled and conferences right through to the end of March,” hotel owner Wendy Lester told the Wangaratta Chronicle this week.
“We’re not feeling it at the minute because representatives from government departments and services involved in the recovery are staying here but when they leave I think it will be pretty grim.
“The government will really have to push tourism out into the regions.”
Ed Flynn from clothing retailer Flynn’s Inland and Surf said he had noticed some impact but it was not major.
“This time of year we normally get a few visitors from the Alpine region who might come down but the local custom has remained strong,” he said.
“Apart from the smoke we’re not really affected.
“It’s disappointing for those who are impacted, small businesses need all the support we can get.”
Krystal Butler from The Butler’s Pantry said her business had not experienced a downturn except on the extremely smoky days.
“People don’t want to come out,” she said.
“But we have seen extra people here who are probably involved in the recovery and we’ve been doing some catering for different government departments so we are one of the lucky ones.
“We really feel for the businesses in the tourist areas like Beechworth and in the Alpine areas.”
Chris Simsen, general manager at the Wangaratta RSL, said while tourist numbers may be down it was evened out by people from fire affected regions coming in for a few hours of relief and a meal.
“I’ve always thought that the tourism business was a bonus, we rely on locals as our core business,” he said.
“Our trade hasn’t been too bad which is why we were able to offer free meals to all emergency services.
“We’ve had a few police and firies in but mostly army personnel.
“It’s a small part we can play.”
Suppliers of water and firefighting equipment were rushed off their feet just prior to the forecast danger day on Friday, January 3.
WB Hunter Wangaratta manager Tony Alexander said there was such a spike in sales that many local retailers quickly sold out of products such as pumps, hoses, generators, and anything to do with water.
“We got hammered when that dangerous Saturday loomed he said.
“Now our key suppliers are months behind and they are only supplying to seriously affected areas.
“Our normal trade has pretty much remained the same.”