//What we can learn from the Australian fires

What we can learn from the Australian fires

Sam Ballard speaks to the marketing and business development manager for Sydney Melbourne Touring about overcoming unexpected crises in tourism.

Images of the recent bush fires in Australia made headlines around the world. The footage showed blazing infernos and gave the impression of a country on fire. While the fires were indeed catastrophic – especially in areas like Kangaroo Island – the images didn’t tell the whole story and there were many areas left totally unaffected. The impact on tourism – even before the current Covid-19 crisis – was disastrous. So much so that Paul Cooper, marketing and business development manager for Sydney Melbourne Touring, took off along the Sydney Melbourne Coastal Drive himself – live-streaming it around the world. The state of Victoria covers an area that is home to 30 per cent of all of Australia’s native species – within just three per cent of the country’s land mass – making the area perfect for spotting wildlife. It’s also very popular among British tourists. We caught up with Paul to find out why he undertook the journey and what he found along the way.

Tell me more about Sydney Melbourne Touring… 
We are a not-for-profit marketing organisation that covers the touring route between Sydney and Melbourne, similar to the Great Southern Touring Route. We get funding from local government and regional tourism boards, with Visit Victoria our largest partner. We promote self-drive holidays from Sydney to Melbourne and vice versa. The UK is our number one market, followed by Germany and the Netherlands. I’ve been doing this for 11 years and the Brits have been our number one market every year.

Why do you think the route is so popular among Brits?
It’s an incredible experience. You get to meet winemakers at their cellar door, or cheesemakers and other artisans. It’s an authentic experience. It’s also one of the most scenic environments when it comes to seeing wildlife in its natural habitat. There’s a kangaroo colony on Pebbly Beach which you can picnic around; you’ll see birdlife including lorikeets as you head into Victoria; and Raymond Island is famous for its koalas. It’s just a short ferry across and I’ve never seen fewer than 15 when I’ve visited. At Wilsons Promontory National Park you can see wombats, while penguins and seals are on Phillip Island.

How did the bush fires affect local tourism?
One of the biggest issues was how long the fires were burning for. The ones in New South Wales started in November and in the National Park they began before Christmas. However, there were only a few people who were impacted by flame – about 18 per cent of the route was affected. That means that 82 per cent was left unaffected. Lakes Entrance was asked to evacuate – one of our partners was told to get out. But it’s important to remember that we have fires every year, just not to this extent. We had journalists standing in devastated parts of town when other parts were operating as normal.

Tell me more about your experience driving the route…
The main reason was to find out more about the situation on the ground. I was getting such mixed reports. Communications were cut in certain areas and I was looking at state fire maps thinking that the damage was going to be terrible. I was also getting so many enquiries internationally, so I wanted to measure out the impact of the damage. The drive was an emotional roller coaster. We were seeing shops that were devastated across the road from shops that were fully operational. That feeling of lend a hand – the community spirit – was very much palpable.

Had the damage been overblown?
I want to acknowledge that we did have some terrible fires but not to the extent that people think. So many areas were totally unaffected. So many of the wonderful experiences [were] still operating [before the Covid-19 outbreak]. When I did the drive the thing that most amazed me was the regrowth. It was only six weeks after, but the lush green coming out of the black trees was incredible. The other good story is that the local wildlife carers were going out and setting up food stations. Wombats have an incredible sense of smell, so people were doing aerial drops and keeping the water stations topped up. These things don’t usually make the headlines, but they’re such a positive story.