Great Ocean Road suffers major tourism hit due to COVID-19

Empty roads of the Great Ocean Road captured from Teddys Lookout in Lorne.

The winding roads are left quiet. Towns are vacant. Shops are closed. Landmarks are empty. The famous 243km road with spectacular views of the Southern Ocean falls silent as Matt Jones locks up his vans, uncertain of how long until he will be able to return to the road.  

He greets me with an unnatural smile, one that showed politeness rather than happiness. Replying “I’m good thanks” when I asked how he was as though he was reading from an English textbook, but his tired, dark eyes told me otherwise. He looked stressed. Worried even. Like any business owner who has no idea what the future of their business will entail. It’s been six months now since Matt Jones was forced to shut down his business due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. He owns a company that operates private customised tours and experiences of the Great Ocean Road and surrounding regions in Victoria and South Australia. As restrictions are beginning to ease for regional Victorians, local hospitality businesses are able to open back up, but Jones’ business is still left in the unknown, with the majority of its tour guests being international and predominantly interstate guests. Similar many other small business owners in Victoria, Jones is holding onto a glimmer of hope that one day soon this pandemic will be over, and his business will be operating as normal. 

Looking back on how it unfolded, Jones is shocked by how quickly COVID-19 affected his business. 

“We went from a summer where we were booked out every day with all our vans on the road to virtually nothing overnight. Back in March, I thought this lockdown would only be going for a month or so. It’s now September and there are still no answers on when our businesses will be able to operate again. No one expected it to go for this long. I definitely didn’t.” 

“It’s strange seeing what was once a busy road has now become so quiet with no tourists. I still go down towards Lorne to surf, and the iconic landmark Great Ocean Road sign has no one taking photos in front of it. It’s the first time I’ve seen it empty like that in my lifetime.” 

When I look at him sympathetically, he changes his sadness and expresses that the locals have formed an incredible bond during the restrictions. 

“It has been great to see the strong local community support for existing tourism and hospitality businesses that are still open. The camaraderie has been incredible with everyone looking out for each other.” 

The Great Ocean Road is one of Australia’s most iconic destinations and is known as one of the most spectacular driving routes in the world. With incredible views of the pristine beaches as it hugs the scenic coastline and cliffs, it’s one of the most popular holiday destinations in Victoria. With over 2.8 million tourists visiting the Great Ocean Road between July 2018 and June 2019, the number of tourists has dramatically decreased due to travel bans and restrictions. Many of these small towns rely on tourists for their main source of revenue with things like accommodation, hospitality, tours and equipment hire. There are many tourist-attracting events on the Great Ocean Road that are uncertain whether or not they will be able to go ahead yet. Lorne is one of the popular Schoolies destinations in late November, along with the Pier to Pub swim that occurs each year in January. The Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road race is also a large tourist attraction that happens in January and is also assessing plans to see if it will go ahead. After major world surf event, The Bells Beach Rip Curl Pro was cancelled in April, it saw a huge revenue loss as the event which attracts thousands of tourists each year and creates more than $2 Million into the local economy annually. 

Meg Law, creative director of Chatterbox Marketing explains that tourism on the Great Ocean Road in 2020 has taken a huge hit in COVID-19 and it will be at least 12 to 18 months before we see the Great Ocean Road operating again. 

“Depending on the duration of the crisis, the potential aftermath of this devastation could result in anywhere between a 60-80% decline in the international tourism economy in 2020/21. To support the tourism sector, we will need to shift our focus and develop some serious recovery measures and fast, before the industry simply cannot get back on its feet. These include considerations on lifting travel restrictions, restoring traveller confidence and rethinking the tourism sector for the future.”

Regular holidaymaker on the Great Ocean Road, Ella Toone reminisces on her weekends in Lorne as she pulls out photos of her surfing. She moans as she shows me a photo of her surfing. “Wow, I was actually getting so good. Now I probably won’t even be able to stand up.” She jokes but with a slightly disappointed tone in her voice. Her face says it all. She misses it. She looks at the photos with a small smile and her eyes light up. You can tell it’s her happy place. She pulls out another photo of her and her friends at the beach in Lorne. “I mostly miss my friends. I haven’t seen these girls since March, it’s so hard to believe it’s now September and there is still no information of when we will be able to start travelling down the coast again. I’m totally over these stage four restrictions in Melbourne. Everyone is. There is only so much longer we can all do it for before we go insane.” 

Globally the iconic destination has taken a big hit. The reputation of Melbourne and Victoria has been damaged and are being targeted as ‘areas to avoid’ for overseas travellers. This alone will take a significant amount of marketing to repair the stigma and aftermath effects of the damage already done. 

Jones, like many other business owners, are praying that restrictions will begin to ease up in time for the peak season between November and April. 

“The most challenging thing is the uncertainty of when we’ll be able to recommence tours and the planning for this. Seeing our tours stop virtually overnight was difficult to see after putting in so much hard work to establish brand awareness and generate regular tours. However, we have used this period to put our energy into developing some exciting new experiences and refreshing existing experiences and General business development. We’re hopeful that the travel restrictions for Victoria will be over before our peak season.”

As the roadmap for restrictions to ease is slowly being released, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for these small businesses on the Great Ocean Road. The focus on domestic tourism products will be paramount to getting business back up and running. Victorians should be paying attention to where they source their products from and try buying locally. By booking a tour or purchasing a gift voucher to give to friends or family for birthdays, anniversaries or even Christmas which is just around the corner will be more important than ever to keep these small tourism attractions and products afloat. 

Despite her frustrations of not being able to visit her favourite holiday destination, Ella Toone is optimistic that she will be able to return in the near future. “These tough restrictions for Melbourne can’t last forever.” She reminds herself, presenting her with something to look forward to. “I will never take travelling down the coast for granted now, I’m beyond excited to get back to Lorne. It’s where I’m most happy.” The way her face lights up when she talks about it, you know she is telling the truth.  

Meg Law is hopeful that Victorians will be able to help boost the tourism economy as soon as restrictions begin to ease. “Victorians can help small businesses get back up on their feet by travelling regionally and intrastate and supporting tourism as much as possible. While the Victorian borders are closed now is the time to hit the road and explore your own State. Forget about doing the ever-popular ‘Lap of Oz’ or international travel for a while and focus on local road-trips and staying at the quality regional accommodation providers dotted throughout Victoria”. Law is encouraging businesses to adapt their business strategies, as marketing on a shoestring will be more important than ever with businesses relying on social media. “Essentially we are moving into the age of adaptivity. As the world tries to anchor itself amidst the COVID-19 crisis and the new reality of an impending economic downturn, tourism destination, attractions and providers will need to apply a new perspective on marketing, destination development and community engagement.”

In the face of these uncertain times, Jones still has hope that he will be able to dust off his vans and remove the cobwebs to do what he loves, showcasing his favourite winding road. It will be a slow but gradual return for his business until interstate and international visitors are able to return. But, like he says, “Afterall, seeing the Great Ocean Road or Twelve apostles online in a virtual setting is one thing but travelling there in person will always win tenfold.”

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