Tourism life raft for River Murray businesses struggling to stay afloat

Bowhill Engineering is running a bus for 22 travel-weary staff forced to drive an extra 100km a day to work, the Hunter Highway access road to Mannum ferry just a few kilometres away is still shut after River Murray floods.

Feb 20, 2023, updated Feb 20, 2023
Tourism dollars are will help the River Murray region rebuild. Photo: supplied

Tourism dollars are will help the River Murray region rebuild. Photo: supplied

As water levels fall to 42GL a day at the border, the engineering firm is among thousands of small businesses dealing with the economic impact of months-long closures of major transport routes and business losses.

Murraylands and Riverland Regional Development Australia (RDA) agency chair Jodie Hawkes says while life goes on for the rest of the state, River Murray region businesses still face long months ahead cleaning up and dealing with travel and product transport issues.

In the background are the other worries.

Depleted bank balances, lost customers, loan pressures, fixing damage to buildings, poor quality water to irrigate crops and reconnecting power after long months of being shut down as flows at the border peaked at 190GL a day on December 23.

“It’s the fatigue, I think that’s what I’m seeing,” said Hawkes, who is also Bowhill Engineering’s chief financial officer for its more than 60 staff.

“Yes, we’ve got through this, yes there’s a recovery plan, but everyone is fatigued, there’s nothing left in the cup, they are at breaking point and I feel a mental health crisis is coming.”

Hawkes said the agency was part of the zone emergency team during the floods and its business development director Julie Bates now has been asked to lead a new Murray River Tourism Recovery Working Group.

The RDA is also armed with 22 recommendations to tackle business recovery, replacing the ‘D’ word in its recently produced Regional Drought Resilience Plan with the word disruption.

“Eighteen of those key recommendations apply to the flood as well as drought,” Hawkes said.

Top of the list is to rebuild destroyed infrastructure better, with Hawkes commenting “we don’t want to build the roads and have them flooded again in 12 months’ time”.

It was this infrastructure that partly led to tourists staying away. Before the flood, the tourism industry was worth $436 million and employed 2,800 people in the regions from the Riverland to the Lakes and Coorong.

“When you look at the houseboat industry for example and all the associated cafes and shops and tourism agencies dealing with no visitors on the back of COVID, how much can you take,” Hawkes said.

The new tourism working group met for the first time recently and the SA Tourism Commission is putting the final touches on its $4.1 million river recovery campaign and voucher program.

Three rounds of targeted vouchers are going to be available this year to stimulate tourism in autumn, winter and spring.

Tourism Minister Zoe Bettison said workshops around the voucher plan are being held in Berri, Renmark and Murray Bridge this week on February 23 and February 24.

Bettison has made regular forays into the region, speaking to business owners along the river where caravan parks, hotels, wineries and houseboat owners have been hard hit.

“The flood event in South Australia was a one-in-a-100-year event – while there are huge environmental benefits to come, we are now dealing with what needs to be done to rebuild communities and businesses right along the river,” she said.

“A significant part of that rebuild is our $4.1 million tourism recovery package, but equally, it is talking to operators on what they need from us next – recognising recovery timelines vary all along the river and that access to some roads and infrastructure is still limited.

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“We know South Australians rallied for Book Them Out after the bushfires, so I’m confident that we’ll see it again with a very strong return to holidaying along the river, and supporting communities that have been doing it very tough.”

Business SA policy and advocacy general manager Kendall Crowe said the impact on river region businesses has been “diabolical” – lost trade sitting alongside existing issues in the regions around higher energy prices, interest rate rises along with labour and housing shortages.

“This week I’ve been hearing the impacts of flooding on supply chain and freight costs have been really substantial,” Crowe said.

“With interest rate rises attempting to slow the economy… businesses are getting a little nervous that things will also slow down with spending.”

She believed another challenging aspect of recovery is that “it’s multi-faceted, the issues are not generic, everyone has different issues”.

Business SA marketing, media and communications manager Anthony Caldwell said the organisation had filmed a supportive business video focusing on key Riverland companies just before the River Murray flooding hit.

The footage includes Caudo Wines, Nippy’s fruit juices and the Riverland West Chamber of Commerce and he said Business SA was keen to release the video to its 60,000-plus database once they are back up and running.

Hawkes continues to hear stories of closed and damaged roads still taking their toll on the region’s 73,000 residents.

One IT business owner is still struggling after dealing with the main Bookpurnong Road thoroughfare between his Riverland home in Loxton and his business based in Berri across the River Murray was closed for weeks – adding many hours to his weekly commutes.

A family of five living on the Bowhill side of the river is still having to drive a daily 150km route to work and to deliver children to school in Mannum and Murray Bridge, the local ferry only five kilometres away is still inaccessible.

And then there is the issue of displaced residents, Hawkes saying in her own hometown of Bowhill about 2,500 holiday shacks have been empty over the busiest tourism and travel period for the local economy.

Of those about 100 are permanent residents.

“A lot are pensioners and are unlikely to be able to rebuild, where do these people go? We already have a housing and rental crisis in the region,” Hawkes said.

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