Victoria’s towns reopen after the bushfires: 'We love to welcome people back'

Jeff Sparrow

At Christmas in 2019, Tourism Australia unleashed its “Matesong” advertising campaign, with Kylie Minogue and Adam Hills selling Britons the serenity of the antipodes as an alternative to Brexit chaos.

Within a week, the ad was overshadowed by the footage from Mallacoota Beach, where thousands of vacationers huddled by the water as encroaching flames turned the skies apocalyptic red.

The crisis coincided with peak holiday season, cutting off the revenue on which many towns relied. With bushfires (for the most part) extinguished, regional Victoria needs its tourists again.

Related: Tourism after the bushfires: 'The whole area is screaming for people to come back'

But it’s not easy getting back to normal.

Within Australia, the crisis reinforced important safety messages. An entire generation learned to check Fire Danger Ratings on the Emergency Victoria website, to download the VicEmergency app and save the VicEmergency number, to read National Parks and Wildlife bulletins, and other (still relevant) lessons.

Yet the experience also left some urbanites imagining the bush as either too dangerous or too devastated to visit.

Guardian Australia spoke to people in three different rural areas about the process of recovery – and why there’s never been a better time to explore regional Victoria.

East Gippsland

“Most of what was lost was people’s houses. So, for individuals, it’s been absolutely devastating,” says Mallacoota resident Jodie York. “But the main infrastructure around the actual town centre and all our services remain intact. All the businesses other than the abalone co-op remain active and very much in need of people to visit.”

After being evacuated on 30 December, York contemplated cancelling the Wild Harvest Seafood Festival, a showcase of local produce she’d scheduled for early April.

But she decided the event was now more important than ever, as the town fought to re-establish itself.

On social media, the Empty Esky campaign encourages city-dwellers to visit fire-affected towns to stock up on local produce.

This is the busiest period, when we get a quarter of our income for the year. So it’s not the best timing

Tim Shaw

But Mallacoota’s isolation can dissuade such weekend visitors. Hence the My Mallacoota Esky initiative of Vanessa Janns, launched on 16 February, that allows foodies to shop online for curated baskets of regional delights.

Janns lost one of her Airbnb properties to fire and saw a second severely damaged.

“I was pretty bummed about my business, but I could see that the other businesses in town were struggling, too. So this is just something to help their economies and keep them going.”

Janet Burton from Business and Tourism East Gippsland agrees that the locals could definitely do with a hand.

“For businesses in East Gippsland, they make money four months of the year, they lose money four months of the year and they break even four months of the year. And what’s gone away is the four months when they make money.”

Yet Burton – who lives in Nicholson but works in Bairnsdale – notes that other parts of the region did not experience destruction of the scale wrought on Mallacoota, Buchan and Sarsfield.

The prolonged closure of roads – with the route from Cann River to the NSW border blocked and Mallacoota cut off for more than five weeks – has made the recovery difficult. Although parks and forests in the region remain closed, access to towns is now fully restored and, she said, “the whole of East Gippsland is welcoming tourists back”.

York makes the same point.

“Mallacoota is still hauntingly beautiful and the beaches are still amazing, with the sand beautiful and the water still warm. Yes, the forests have burnt. But the epicormic shoots are starting to come back. The kangaroo tails are starting to reshoot and a lot of grasses have covered the black ground again. It’s really amazing to watch how quickly the bush is regenerating itself.”

The Grampians

“So I probably noticed it towards the end of December. On both businesses, the bookings slowed right down, and then towards the first and second week of January, the cancellations then started to come in as well,” says Justine Hide who runs Grampians Helicopters and Grampians Wine Tours, hundreds of kilometres from the December and January fire fronts.

But, like others in the region, she still took a hit.

Smoke from Adelaide and other distant blazes grounded flights for 10 days.

More importantly, overseas tourists simply cancelled their holidays, messaging to say they thought the whole country was too dangerous.

“We would email back saying that our area is not affected – in fact, I think the closest fire to us was nearly 600km away. They were aware of that, but they were still not prepared to travel.”

Marc Sleeman from Grampians Tourism, a body covering Horsham, the Grampians and Ararat, says that 75% of surveyed businesses have reported declining revenues, down 20-30% on previous Christmas periods.

Carly Flecknoe, the director of the Grampians Music Festival, reports the same trend in ticket sales, tracking at 40% of projections. Trade at Harvest Halls Gap, the cafe, providore and accommodation business she co-owns, has declined at a similar rate.

But the relative lack of visitors means tourists can enjoy the region without crowds – particularly since none of its attractions were ever affected by the fires.

“No one has stopped,” says Flecknoe. “No one’s closed. Every accommodation provider, every restaurant, every winery, every tour operator is still in full operation.”

High Country

“Hospitality people are a different breed. We love people. And we love to welcome people back to our regions,” says Natalie Pizzini, whose family runs a vineyard in the King Valley specialising in Italian varietals such as pinot grigio, arneis, prosecco, sangiovese and nebbiolo. The Pizzinis also run a cooking school and operate the Mountain View Hotel in Whitfield.

Diversification has helped the clan ride out two mandatory evacuations, as the fires shook the valley both economically and psychologically.

“I’ve been part of two different community meetings in the last week, and at each we’re had 10 to 15 tour operators talk. It’s been heartbreaking. We didn’t even see flames but the emotional impact has been quite immense on our little communities.”

Related: Beyond Byron Bay: a local's guide to the NSW northern rivers' lesser-known towns

Tim Shaw’s business, the Bright Adventure Company, depends directly on access to Mount Buffalo and surrounds for its guided outdoor experiences. He received his first booking of the year on 8 February, with the disaster entirely wiping out custom through January.

“And this is the busiest period, when we get a quarter of our income for the year. So it’s not the best timing,” he says laconically.

But low overheads mean he can cope, especially now he can again access sites for bushwalking, rock climbing, kayaking and abseiling.

“In terms of adventurous activities in the area, we are back in business!”

Sarah Pilgrim, from Tourism North East, also stresses resilience.

Yes, she says, the fires have been devastating, with a staggering three quarters of business owners reporting losses of more than 75%.

But most are now up and running again.

“Pretty well all of Mount Buffalo is open. You can go and climb to waterfalls or swim in Lake Catani. The Great Alpine Road is now open across to Bairnsdale, between us and Gippsland.”

In many places, visitors might not even realise an emergency had taken place.

“In the Upper Murray, Corryong and Cudgewa [they] had some terrible losses to property. But in the rest of the region, apart from the occasional small burned out patch on the side of the road, you really wouldn’t know.”