Ballarat is preparing for a big weekend, welcoming Melbourne visitors back to the city for the first time in months from 6pm Friday night, but tourism operators have said it feels more like a soft reopening than the big rush they were expecting.
From 6pm Friday night, Melbourne visitors will be able to venture outside the city and into regional Victoria while businesses will also be able to enjoy reduced restrictions with greater venue capacities inside and outside.
While many accommodation providers were expecting a massive influx of visitation from Melbourne, their expectations have been tempered by a slower uptake, possibly driven by double vaccination requirements or people prioritising visiting friends and family over leisure travel.
Sovereign Park Motor Inn owner Tim Canny said the demand had been fairly subdued coming into the weekend with bookings solid, but not sold out.
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"To be honest, I was probably expecting higher demand. I thought the phones would have been ringing red hot and non-stop, but it's been fairly subdued and a little bit less than inspiring," he said.
"In some ways, it's been good and certainly has improved and we are getting plenty of bookings in, but I guess it's been a bit of a soft reopening if you could call it that rather than actually getting bombarded by lots of calls. Business is certainly looking up, but it's probably a softer than expected reopening to Melbourne."
Mr Canny said the slower than expected demand could be driven by some apprehension from Melburnians, among other factors.
"Perhaps, some people may not have the second dose under their belt yet so they don't get access to the attractions and they don't get access to pubs and restaurants and things as well, so I think that's probably another reason why," he said.
"Maybe people that are just holding off a little bit longer, just to see what happens with COVID and holding off until school holidays, perhaps. Kids have missed enough school and maybe they're just going to hold off until school holidays.
"The weather, too, is not that great either so that's probably another turn off. Maybe people are choosing coastal towns rather than going inland as well so that's another reason why Ballarat may not be as busy as what we'd hoped it to be."
Ballarat Regional Tourism chief executive Sarah Myers said there were some silver linings for businesses in the informal 'soft reopening'.
"The consistent theme is that demand is strong, but not booked out and I think based on the ongoing challenges that everyone is facing, it's still a really positive position to be in and a soft launch is a great way to put it," she said.
"I think this weekend, it will be about family and friends reconnecting and leisure travel will likely flow in the weeks ahead. Possibly that's a reason why accommodation providers are not booked out, because people's first priority is reconnecting with family and friends.
"We'll keep the positive messaging out there and there's no doubt there's plenty happening in the region this weekend, especially with the Foto Biennale, the reopening of Sovereign Hill and improving weather.
"The words that I'm hearing are that the industry is feeling cautiously optimistic. I think that's the summary of how everyone's feeling."
Ballarat mayor Daniel Moloney said while it was exciting to have Melbourne visitors back in the city, that excitement was somewhat dampened by the storm damage across the city overnight.
"The city was looking fantastic and ready to start welcoming people back from 6pm tonight. Unfortunately, we probably won't have the botanical gardens and lake precinct looking the way we'd like them to be as we welcome Melburnians back, just because of the sheer amount of damage that's happened as a result of last night's storm," he said.
"That said, our businesses are generally raring to go, we have been without the Melbourne trade for such a long part of the last two years, hopefully we are now at a point where we don't see Melbourne separated from the rest of regional Victoria because a city like ours, that is so close to the capital, really leans very heavily on the Melbourne market for tourism and supply of a whole range of goods and services."
Cr Moloney said while accommodation demand was slower than expected, warmer weather towards the end of the long weekend could spur day trip visitation.
"The nature of Ballarat is that we are so close to Melbourne that we're an easy day trip destination and a lot of people will just wait to see what weather's like, jump in the car and make their way out of Melbourne to Ballarat for day trip to Sovereign Hill and spend a bit of time in the CBD," he said.
"The bulk of our work in the past has been getting people to stay for multiple days and to see the region, to go out to wineries and do other things around the region and stay for multiple days, that's the challenge because Ballarat's proximity to Melbourne is both a strength and a weakness."
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