Long recovery ahead for Victoria’s Great Ocean Road as lighthouse attraction calls it quits

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It is synonymous with Australian surf culture and natural attractions like the Twelve Apostles but now, like many tourist destinations nationally, Victoria’s Great Ocean Road is facing an uncertain journey ahead.

The strip of Victorian coastline, west of Melbourne, has been largely empty of tourists throughout the state’s lockdowns.

It has been a hard time for many tourist attractions, including the Colac Otway Lightstation.

After 24 years, the operator of Victoria’s oldest working lighthouse has decided to call it quits in March 2021.

“We’ve had to be realistic around the future for the lighthouse,” operator Matt Bowker said.

An historic lighthouse overlooks the ocean
The Cape Otway Lightstation is Victoria’s oldest working lighthouse.(Wikimedia Commons: Paul Rudd)

Mr Bowker told his 26 staff the bad news last week.

“They took it obviously terribly,” he said.

The lighthouse on Cape Otway includes walking guides and attractions around WWII history, dinosaurs and the local Indigenous culture.

Where did the lighthouse’s woes begin?

It had previously been run by the company on a long-term lease.

However, it has been battling to secure another long-term lease for several years, which Mr Bowker said had been denied by the State Government due to changes to how leases on public land are determined.

“We’re unfortunately in a perfect storm of government departments and government departments inability to make decisions,” Mr Bowker said.

He said the current lease was due to end by 2022.

“The problem is that short term leases are terrible for business owners,” Mr Bowker said.

“It’s very very difficult to borrow money, and plan and invest.

“Coronavirus, with a complete shutdown of the lighthouse, has forced everything to a head.”

Nippers from surf lifesaving clubs around the state gather in Torquay, ahead of sweltering conditions on Friday afternoon.
The Great Ocean Road is generally bustling over Summer months in Victoria.(ABC News: Cameron Best)

Like most tourist operators on the Great Ocean Road, the Lightstation has been largely closed during COVID-19 and only able to keep paying staff through JobKeeper subsidies.

However, those Federal Government subsidies will not continue indefinitely. And with Victoria’s borders closed, it unlikely that interstate or international tourism will return to the region anytime soon.

“We have a very high international and interstate visitation at the lighthouse. About 70 per cent, traditionally.

“With none of that happening within the next year or so, we just have to look after care of our staff and let them know it’s unlikely we can open the doors.

“We literally can’t borrow money to see out the downturn or the wages we can’t make up once JobKeeper finishes. No financial institution is going to borrow money on a one-year lease.”

Mr Bowker said if it was not for the short-term lease situation, he likely would have borrowed money to see the business through COVID-19.

The State Government has been contacted for comment.

Major hotel on Great Ocean Road in administration

A major hotel and golf course on the Great Ocean Road was also put into administration in July.

The administrators of The Sands Resort in the major tourist town Torquay are seeking expressions of interest from new owners. But that will be a tough sell to investors in the present climate.

In a statement, administrators PKF said the hotel was still trading due to JobKeeper and the support of staff.

In April, the Great Ocean Road Tourism Organisation released modelling that found the region would not fully recover until 2024.

The organisation’s chairman, Wayne Kayler-Thomson, told the ABC that they were updating that economic modelling, now that Victoria had been locked down even longer than initially expected.

“We are anticipating there will be significant business failures once support through JobKeeper ends and increasing debt starts to mount,” he said.

However, that sentiment is being challenged. Data from Xero this week shows the rebound post-lockdown in Victoria could be fairly swift.

On Sunday, the Victorian Government announced the biggest stimulus package in its history to help businesses through the pandemic.

Premier Daniel Andrews also believes this will be a “summer like no other” in Victoria, with regional Victoria likely to be the main choice of destination for locked-in Melburnians.

Teenagers on the beach during schoolies week
The Great Ocean Road is a popular destination for Schoolies.(Tony Phillips: AAP)

However, the Victoria Tourism Industry Council is warning that regional tourism operators cannot survive off tourists from Melbourne alone.

“It will be a summer like no other in that we’re all dying get out,” VTIC chief executive Felicia Mariani said.

“But I think we need to be realistic that intrastate travel cannot sustain the industry. It can’t replace interstate and international.”

There is one potential glimmer of hope for the Great Ocean Road’s tourism operators. Its two major hubs, Lorne and Torquay, are typically hot-spots for schoolies.

It is unclear whether the popular school-leavers’ event will be allowed to take place under pandemic restrictions, but a police spokesperson has told the ABC that “resourcing options” are being assessed in relation to it.

Some locals have questioned whether that would be worth the health risk.

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