Hunter Valley tourism impacted by recent bushfires while Port Stephens, Newcastle and Lake Macquarie boom

DOWNTURN: Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association CEO Jessica Sullivan said concerts like Elton John's, while a great boost to the Hunter's economy, were unlikely to make up for the losses over the usually busy Christmas period. Picture: Paul Dear
DOWNTURN: Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association CEO Jessica Sullivan said concerts like Elton John's, while a great boost to the Hunter's economy, were unlikely to make up for the losses over the usually busy Christmas period. Picture: Paul Dear

WHILE Port Stephens is enjoying a strong summer tourist season, the visual signs of drought and smoke from recent bushfires have affected "bottom lines" in other parts of the Hunter.

Accommodation providers in Port Stephens recorded "high-to-very high" occupancy rates over Christmas and New Year, with bookings described as "good, if not better", than previous seasons.

Port Stephens Council's holiday parks had an occupancy rate in the high 90 per cent during summer, but the Hunter Valley took a hit.

Jessica Sullivan, the chief executive of the Hunter Valley Wine & Tourism Association, said preliminary figures from their recent visitation survey showed many operators in the region had experienced a downturn.

"What I saw (last) weekend, with Elton John in the Hunter Valley, was a hive of activity I haven't seen since I started in this role in November," she said.

"The event has really raised the spirits of our operators, despite having one of their toughest years with drought and reduced visitation due to bushfires."

Jessica Sullivan. Picture: Chris Elfes

Jessica Sullivan. Picture: Chris Elfes

Ms Sullivan said the concerts, while a great boost to the Hunter's economy, were unlikely to make up for the losses over the usually busy Christmas period. Domestic and international media coverage of the fires had "definitely" impacted consumer confidence to travel.

"This is being seen across the whole spectrum of operators... from grape growers and cellar doors, to hotels, recreation and leisure," Ms Sullivan said.

"The valley is showing visual signs of drought, and bottom lines are being affected by the need to purchase water to retain minimal standards."

The Australian Tourism Industry Council has said there have been cancellation rates of more than 60 per cent in regional Victoria and NSW, causing economic damage of up to $1 billion.

But Lake Macquarie City Council's holiday parks were "booked solid", a spokesperson said, with tourism operators reporting an increase in last-minute bookings from Sydneysiders deciding to travel north instead of the south coast. It meant revenue from the four holiday parks reached almost $6.5 million in the 2019 calendar year - a "record for the city."

Will Creedon, owner of holiday property management company Alloggio, said most accommodation providers had some cancellations early in December, but Newcastle and Port Stephens had been busy ever since.

Top spot: Bushfires have affected many tourism operators in regional NSW during Christmas and New Year, including the Hunter Valley, but Port Stephens has had a strong holiday season. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Top spot: Bushfires have affected many tourism operators in regional NSW during Christmas and New Year, including the Hunter Valley, but Port Stephens has had a strong holiday season. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

"Port Stephens has been fortunate in that, thankfully, it hasn't been affected by the fires or road closures," he said. "We had a fantastic run from Christmas, and I see that continuing... But we do need to tell people - particularly our biggest market in Sydney - that the Hunter is a safe destination. We are an accessible destination. And we are open for business."

Matthew Kent, the general manager of Rydges Newcastle, said they had experienced the "largest impact" in November, when the Hunter Region was classed as an "emergency zone".

"This resulted in cancelled booking and conferences," he said.

"In January, however, we have seen a boost in occupancy so far. I have had a few conversations with guests who reside on the south coast and stayed with us to get away from the smoke and fires.

"With Newcastle's coastal location, and the city itself not directly impacted by the fires, I would say this is now starting to assist with tourism."

Destination Port Stephens CEO Eileen Gilliland said the entire industry was feeling for operators affected by fires.

"I would like to express my deepest sympathies to families who have lost loved ones, to the tourist operators who have lost business and pay respect to the brave firefighters," she said.

"We are all feeling for our colleagues and their communities. In Port Stephens we are very fortunate to have not been affected, although the visitor information centre has received calls from potential visitors asking about the extent of smoke in Port Stephens."