Regional foray

Australia’s tourism engines have been in high gear since lockdowns ended, but international travel has not fully returned to the Hunter Region. Stakeholders are confident that numbers will increase as traveller confidence improves.

Sydney has long been a popular port of call with international visitors, thanks to iconic attractions, a lively culinary scene, and a plethora of cultural and soft-adventure activities to fill out a holiday itinerary.

Destination NSW is banking on this to attract more international tourists to Sydney’s shores, while also working with key distribution partners on a Sydney Plus strategy to drive overnight stays within two to three hours of Greater Sydney.

An injured koala being rehabilitated at Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary

The Hunter Region – which includes Port Stephens and Hunter Valley – is one such example, both destinations within a three-hour drive radius of Sydney.

“Mono Sydney and Surrounds packages are key itineraries being promoted to drive longer lengths of stay, regional dispersal and visitor spend,” CEO of Destination NSW, Steve Cox, shared with TTG Asia.

Cox added: “Destination NSW, through our NSW First Program, also assists businesses to develop, promote and sell visitor experiences. In 2022, with the support of the NSW First Program, 23 tourism businesses in NSW are launching newly commissionable experiences for inbound and online travel distribution, and this includes 19 from regional NSW.”

One of the newer products is glamping units at the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary. The sanctuary, which rescues, treats and rehabilitates sick or injured koalas, has been in existence for 33 years, but the 20-unit accommodation was only launched during the pandemic.

“Staying overnight will give guests the opportunity to wake up with the koalas, see them in a natural and idyllic bushland setting, and go on an educational tour with one of our guides to learn about the care and rehabilitation we provide,” Kim Latham, section manager for Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary, elaborated.

Currently, most of the sanctuary’s overnight guests are domestic travellers, but Latham hopes to welcome more international guests in time to come.

Aside from the koala sanctuary, Port Stephen’s other activities include quad biking on the Worimi Sand Dunes, swimming with the dolphins with Dolphin Swim Australia, whale-watching cruises, and camel riding.

Adele Clover, front office manager of 78-key Bannisters Port Stephens, said the hotel’s international market has to be gradually “built back up”.

“In between lockdowns, our occupancy was high (due to) domestic guests. I can see that international tourists (are) slowly coming back, and I expect (it) to hit full stride by summer 2022,” she noted.

In nearby Hunter Valley, Evan Marrinan, general manager of voco Kirkton Park Hunter Valley, is also seeing “small signs of international travel coming back” but acknowledges there is a long way to go.

“Recently, a guest requested an international power adaptor for the first time in years, which seemed to be a signal of things to come and got everyone quite excited!” he shared.

Clive Byrne, owner of Heart of Hunter Tours, shared that now is the “perfect time” to refocus his attention on international guests, and he would love to welcome “more groups from Singapore and South-east Asia”.

Marketing activities on his agenda include promotions on social media, Google, and with OTAs such as Viator and Tripadvisor.

However, one of the main challenges of selling the destination is making sure that international tourists perceive the Hunter Region as a must-visit destination.

“Tourists have limited time and so our region must have great appeal when compared to other destinations, like the Blue Mountains. It’s also critical that we have the necessary infrastructure in place to support visitors, such as transportation, hospitality and accommodation,” Byrne said.

When asked how the region would appeal to non-wine drinkers, Byrne said: “There’s beautiful scenery that’s great for photographers, outstanding restaurants, local chocolate and cheese tastings, wild kangaroos, and a wildlife park where guests can feed kangaroos and pet koalas. There are also hot air balloons and scenic helicopter flights, and spectacular beaches nearby.”

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