OPINION

Risk hangs over tourism-dependent towns

I work at the Narooma Visitor Centre where, each summer, I help welcome thousands of tourists ready to soak up our picture-perfect beaches and forests of the NSW South Coast.

The tourism we see is usually low-impact and on a tight budget; perfect to sustain our local workers and businesses. Well, that was until this summer, when horror bushfires changed our lives and environment forever.

On New Year's Eve, I was woken by a text message - a staff member who couldn't get to work because a bushfire was blocking the highway. In the hours that followed, our electricity supply was shut down, followed by internet and mobile phone services. That was just the beginning.

As conditions worsened, visitors were asked to leave. It was chaotic. By January 4, there were no tourists from Batemans Bay to the Victorian border. Instead of families enjoying their holidays, our beaches were littered with burned leaves.

At work, I fielded dozens of calls from anxious tourists who had booked upcoming trips. Knowing how badly our local businesses need their custom, I asked people to delay cancellations until the last minute. January visitor numbers to our centre dropped from our normal 4,000 to just over 500.

Here we are in Narooma two months later. The fires are out, but for our local economy the ash has far from settled. Some businesses have had to call it quits or lay off workers. Others have lost their shops - or homes - to the fires. We're all dealing with insurance claims and funding red tape. And I know it's the same story in bushfire-affected towns all along the coast.

All of us are fortunate to see our tourist numbers slowly increase daily. We are grateful to kind-hearted people who are keen to support affected communities. Even though many of our advertised walks and scenic drives are closed until they're assessed as safe (like the iconic Corn Trail in Monga NP), our beaches have washed themselves clean and our water temperature is perfect for swimming.

The kindness of people gives us hope, but we are still anxious about the future. Climate change fuelled the weather conditions this summer. What will happen next year? Will we recover then?

As long as all levels of government defer climate action, the risk of further damage and danger hangs over our tourism-dependent towns. We can't afford more seasons like this. We need credible climate action now so we can all relax on a South Coast beach next summer.

Lisa Brown manages the Narooma Visitor Centre.