Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association estimates $264 million loss in 12 months from November 2019

SEEMS SO LONG AGO: A crowd of 16,000 enjoyed the Cold Chisel concert at Hope Estate on January 18. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
SEEMS SO LONG AGO: A crowd of 16,000 enjoyed the Cold Chisel concert at Hope Estate on January 18. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

From droughts, bushfires and smoke taint, to COVID-19 lockdowns, it has been a challenging year for the Hunter Valley wine and tourism industry.

Even as the Advertiser goes to press on Tuesday afternoon, tourism operators will be waiting with bated breath for the NSW Government's latest decision regarding the Northern Beaches lockdown, with some Hunter and Port Stephens businesses already reporting cancellation rates as high as 20 percent.

"It's been a rollercoaster of a year," said Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association CEO Amy Cooper, who started her role in February, just before the pandemic hit.

At that time, the region had already reported a $42 million loss in tourism revenue over three months due to drought, bushfires and smoke taint - all before the COVID-19 lockdown.

Ms Cooper said the HVWTA has been working with Macquarie University on a comprehensive analysis of the economic loss to the region, which it estimates as $264 million in the 12 months since November 2019.

"In an industry valued at $631 million, that's a huge loss," she said.

"While some things are going well, you can't snap back that easily.

"The vintage loss (due to smoke taint) will be felt for 10 years.

"And on top of this, the wine industry has had the added challenge of the China export tax - that's a really significant market for us."

CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC: Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association CEO, Amy Cooper.

CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC: Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association CEO, Amy Cooper.

While the Hunter Valley experienced a couple of good weekends before COVID arrived, and good trade since being able to reopen in June, Ms Cooper says businesses are looking to "make hay while the sun shines", because you never know what's around the corner.

"We were really grateful for regional tourism to reopen on the first of June," she said.

"Our cellar doors set the standard (for COVID safety) that was rolled out nationwide - we had a collective reputation to protect.

"A lot of businesses are trying to innovate their business model and add value to consumers' experience."

Ms Cooper said border closures have presented a "captive audience" of people wanting to escape Sydney, and stay and play in the region for longer.

"In a way, we have benefited from Australians who may have had plans to travel overseas this year and still looking for a holiday and new experience," she said.

She said COVID flare-ups - such as one in Newcastle in August and last week's outbreak on the Northern Beaches - have presented a challenge, affecting confidence and bookings.

But overall the industry has been pretty resilient, and some businesses are "cautiously optimistic" moving into 2021.

"We're hoping for a really good vintage - we need it, after a couple of years of drought, then the bushfires.

"Compared to last year, everyone's looking forward to going into Christmas without the stress that the bushfires brought.

"While we've been pleased to be able to open again and have people in region, there are other factors, such as capacity restrictions, meaning some businesses are still facing a huge loss.

"Serious recovery from the economic loss we've faced takes time.

"Collectively, we're doing all that we can so we can be as well-placed as we can be."

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The association recently received a bushfire recovery grant worth $585,750, jointly funded by the state and federal governments, which will go towards ongoing destination and wine marketing activities.

It follows the successful first phase of a successful destination marketing campaign run by the Hunter Valley Wine Country Tourism Alliance - a partnership between the HVWTA and Cessnock and Singleton councils.

The campaign was funded by grants received by the councils to assist the Hunter Valley with bushfire recovery.

Since the launching in June 2020, the digital campaign has amassed over 4.47 million unique impressions, receiving over 151,000 active engagements.

As the campaign continues, the next phase focuses on transitioning from awareness building to conversion.

All local tourism-focused businesses have the opportunity to feature their current experiences and package deals direct for people to book via the campaign landing site.

HVWTA has developed a toolkit and webinars to ensure all businesses are involved in showcasing the full tourism offering of the Hunter Valley.