Tourism operators optimistic in face of post-COVID visitor boom

Unforgettable Houseboats and other local businesses have been flat out since restrictions lifted.

This article is brought to you by Regional Development Australia Murraylands and Riverland.

After the initial devastating blow of COVID-19 closures, Mannum tourism stalwart Unforgettable Houseboats is about to experience one of its biggest winters on record.

Owners Lee-Anne and Mark Flanagan’s fleet of seven premium Murray River houseboats was completely booked out over the June long weekend, and their phones haven’t stopped ringing since bookings re-opened a few weeks ago.

“It seems like everyone just wants to escape their four walls and have a change of scenery ... a houseboat holiday is the perfect way to do that,” Lee-Anne says.

“The beauty of houseboat holidays is you can see so much, but you only have to unpack your bags once.

“After your set up on board, you can travel along the fabulous Murray environment, moor at night for a campfire, go paddling, see the birdlife, go fishing and more; and you can do it all with family and friends on board with you.

“Our enquiry levels are up and our bookings levels are up, so we’re expecting it to be a big winter.”

Unforgettable Houseboats also hopes to be a part of the proposed New Zealand “bubble”, with their normal clientele consisting of a large number of trans-Tasman travellers who are keen to come back to the Murray River as soon as possible: “there’s nothing like the Murray River in New Zealand, and it’s just a matter of time before we can welcome them back”.

To ensure it could keep its core team together and its business wheels spinning during the pandemic, Unforgettable Houseboats managed to secure both the Australian government's Jobkeeper wage support and a South Australian Tourism Commission business grant, which it is using for a website upgrade.

“Staff have been back since the start of May, and been preparing the boats for winter,” Lee-Anne says.

“Our experience meant we were prepared for the pandemic.

“We lost a lot of bookings, but we also worked hard to ensure a lot of the original bookings (between March and May) were deferred.

“We also took the down time to get back into all of the admin and office jobs, and prepare to come back bigger and better.

“We’ve been working with other local operators too, to ensure we have great packaging and tours available, while also supporting other local businesses like the supermarkets and bottle shops.

“We know, however, that word of mouth is our biggest marketing tool moving forward.

“We provide exceptional servicing and we’re a 24/7 local business.

“Customers come back to Unforgettable with friends and family year after year, and we’re hoping it will be the same now that we can operate again.”

‘I’m actually really proud’, industry manager says

Tourism has been one of the industries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, but after a bumper June long weekend, and with solid bookings through to the end of July, Murray River, Lakes and Coorong operators are feeling optimistic.

Houseboats all the way from Murray Bridge up to Swan Reach were completely booked out for the long weekend, and holiday rentals all the way down to the Coorong – especially those with a water view – were snapped up as soon as news arrived of restrictions lifting in May.

Operators’ phones have rung off the hook for the past month.

Murray River, Lakes and Coorong tourism development manager Julie Bates is confident the industry will come back strong.

Julie has been working alongside Regional Development Australia Murraylands and Riverland and the SA Tourism Commission to ensure that support mechanisms have been readily accessible for local operators, and that on-the-ground issues and challenges are being fed back directly to the state’s peak bodies.

“I’m actually really proud of operators for the way they have responded to the pandemic," she says.

"We know it’s hit them harder than most, but they’ve done the right thing to prioritise public health, and in many instances used the quiet time to innovative and improve business practices."

Julie says the significant financial stimulus provided to operators by state and federal governments, plus free training support, have been vital in helping operators survive during hibernation.

“Almost all of our operators have managed to get access to Jobkeeper and the SATC’s cash grants, which means they’ve been able to keep staff on and also deliver facility upgrades, new websites and more,” she says.

“They’re a resilient bunch, and I’m looking forward to working across our region in the coming months to help them all get back on their feet.”

“Feedback from operators after the long weekend is that almost all of the houseboats and holiday homes were booked out, and they’re filling fast for the next two months as well.

“Fortunately, the bookings aren’t just in the bigger towns either; they’re all the way along the river from Swan Reach to Murray Bridge, Goolwa and along the Coorong and lakes near Meningie.

“The beauty of our region is that our biggest market is South Australian visitors, so even with the state borders closed we have an opportunity to bounce back quicker than others who rely on the interstate and international visitors.

“Our operators have stepped things up and are prepared for a rapid increase of visitors from our neighbours in Adelaide.

"We’re only an hour up the freeway from the city, but once you’re here, the beautiful Murray River environment makes you feel like you’re a million miles away.

“We have magnificent icons like the Murray River, Coorong National Park, The Bend Motorsport Park, Big Bend, the historic twin bridges in Murray Bridge and of course Monarto Safari Park – when it reopens again – which continue to draw crowds from the city.

“We’ve also now got the recently accredited River Murray International Dark Sky Reserve, which is growing in popularity for nature-lovers and stargazers, and is opening up our region to a completely new market!”

The Murray River, Lakes and Coorong Tourism Alliance has just kicked off a digital marketing campaign, “Restart”, which aims to attract key SA target markets out of isolation and back into the region for short stays and experiences.

Julie has also been leveraging the SATC’s major marketing push into the regions, including spreads in The Advertiser; television, social media and radio features with SA personality Hans; and more.

Photos: Regional Development Australia Murraylands and Riverland.