The scale of the financial pain wreaked on the hospitality sector is being laid bare one quarter at a time, following the release of new visitor numbers on Wednesday.
Tourism spending in the Ballarat area fell by $289 million according to latest statistics, which cover the year until the end of September 2020.
The figures, which will make for bleak but unsurprising reading for anybody involved in hospitality, show visitor numbers plunged by 47 per cent year on year.
Visitors may be slowly returning but accommodation operators have told The Courier they would need more support once JobKeeper and rent assistance measures end in March. One owner said he feared his central Ballarat business would go broke if government relief dried up.
For five full months of that period covered by the recent data - released by Tourism Research Australia - most businesses were operating without COVID restrictions. The decline will mostly have occurred since the lockdown measures were first taken in the second half of March.
International visitors were inevitably the most affected, decreasing by 56 per cent in Ballarat - but domestic travellers were also sharply down - by 47 per cent - showing the impact of the harsher restrictions that affected Melbourne from August through to October.
Expenditure from international visitors was down by two-thirds, and domestic overnight spending also crashed by more than half (56 per cent), with daytrippers less affected - their spending was down by 34 per cent.
The overall expenditure went down from $630 million across the sector from October 2018 to September 2019 to $330 million in the subsequent 12 months, a slide of almost a half (47 per cent).
The number of Chinese tourists, who were an ever growing and lucrative slice of the market, plummeted by more than any other nationality across Victoria as a whole - down 63 per cent compared to the same period a year before.
The data fleshes out a picture already familiar to hospitality sector workers.
While there has been some uplift this summer, state border closures are still affecting operators - and looming changes to government subsidies are causing significant concern to operators.
Mark Finch is the business owner of the Mid City Hotel on Doveton Street in Ballarat Central. He told The Courier even during the peak summer months, he was operating on a margin that fell short of breaking even. His main concern is the looming end of government subsidies, both federal and state.
Regulation under the Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme introduced a moratorium on evictions, as well as rent relief in proportion to the reduction in turnover. It is due to end on March 28.
"The biggest worry for us is the March date coming up," said Mr Finch. "The day my landlord can ring me up and demand full rent is the day we are in danger of going broke."
The JobKeeper wage subsidy is also due to end in March. Mr Finch also highlighted that he was unable to take advantage of both JobMaker while the JobKeeper subsidy was still running.
"You can't be on both at the same time. We've set up a new bar area, but we can't hire as we can't afford to take the risk. I can't employ anyone new."
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He said discussions on his rent were ongoing - and that he had been heartened by recent occupancy rates, which had gone up less than 20 per cent in August to regularly being more than 40 per cent.
The plummet in overseas visitor numbers was having an impact, he said - but was just one variable among many that had affected business.
"The closing of the hospitals to surgery had an impact, when the art gallery was closed, there was no point in coming to the CBD - there were lots of different factors contributing to it."
Extra costs to keep venues COVID-safe mean making money is now harder than ever before, he said: "Margins that were tight anyway are getting even tighter because of the extra costs.
"We don't think it's a hopeless situation, we just don't think we are there yet."
For Mr Finch, assistance needs to be tailored to one of the hardest hit sectors, rather than the more broad-brushed subsidies seen so far: "The help needs to be more industry specific now."
The federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said JobKeeper will not continue beyond March. However, there are hopes he will announce new support packages for hard-hit sectors such as tourism and hospitality. No detail on what these measures might be has yet been released.
Iain Gunn, the chair of industry advocacy group Ballarat Regional Tourism as well as the owner of the Mercure business in Main Road, expressed his concern at JobKeeper changes.
"Speaking with my Mercure hat on - at the end of March when the subsidy goes, we're probably looking down the barrel of a fully costed payroll with no subsidies."
He said they were still operating with a turnover at only 50 or 60 per cent they had seen previously, and he could not envisage a return to anything like previous levels until much later this year.
"You don't have to be Einstein to work out that is going to make it very difficult."
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