East Gippsland businesses and the farming industry are beginning to count the massive economic cost of the bushfires that have ravaged parts of the state, with tourism and agriculture experts saying a stimulus package will be needed for the areas to get back on their feet.
Victorian Farmers Federation president David Jochinke said it was too soon to put a dollar figure on the economic impact but said a stimulus package would be needed to assist affected farmers.
“This is unprecedented. Seven hundreds farms have been impacted.” he said of the region where the predominant farming is livestock, with some horticulture farms as well and a small number of cropping properties.
Assessments in many areas are yet to begin due to roads being cut off and concerns for safety, he said.
“We’ve heard of circumstances where farms have lost all outbuildings, pasture feed, livestock and fencing.”
He said East Gippsland was facing a long and tough recovery.
“When lights and sirens disappear people tend to forget about recovery. Recovery is a marathon. It will be up to a year if not longer to get their physical infrastructure in some sort of order, let alone the emotional and economic damage that’s caused.
“So some sort of stimulus package will be needed.”
The main chamber of commerce in the region, Business and Tourism East Gippsland (BTEG), expects the impact of the fires on the region’s small-business sector to be catastrophic.
“The tourism industry is a very short season, the ‘given times’ are Christmas, New Year and Easter. Well, we’ve had the stuffing knocked out of us for Christmas and New Year,” BTEG chairman Ian Harrison said from the seaside town of Metung. Metung, like many areas in East Gippsland is dependent on tourism.
“There will need to be something and it will need to be something more than trying to get the businesses back here. There will need to be some other kind of assistance.
“We need to get the problem resolved first and that’s a few weeks down the track yet. Certainly a few heads need to be put together and come up with an idea that’s going to work and help the area.”
Mr Harrison said as well as tourism being affected by the fires, the flow-on effect of fewer tourists would cause economic hardship to other small businesses in towns impacted by the fires from petrol stations, to hairdressers, to milks bars. “To see the main street of Metung with no one on it at this time of year is very hard,” he said.
In the seaside village of Lake Tyers, just east of Lakes Entrance, Water Wheel Beach Tavern manager Tony Carroll is trying to keep his chin up after a tough couple of weeks marked by worry about the safety of the people in the town and the economic impact.
“It’s financially devastating. Hopefully we’re big enough to trade through it,” he said.
“As I look around right now there are ten people in here. We’d usually be at capacity.” He said businesses relied on bumper summer holiday periods to make it through the tough months of winter.
“I’m sitting on so much Christmas stock… kegs of beer and boxes of wines. We have to start paying for them, they’re due now, but we can’t financially do it.
“Now, I’ll have go with my tail between our legs to these bigger suppliers like CUB and Lion.”
Hannah Richards, the owner of the Golden Age Hotel in the picturesque hamlet of Omeo, estimates her business would have lost tens of thousands of dollars given the fires hit at the most profitable time of the year.
“And we’ve still got some way to go yet,” Ms Richards said.
Ms Richards said she was thankful the local CFA brigade and workers from Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning had been using the pub since it was evacuated after being cut off by the fires.
“We’re lucky they’ve been using us, I’d hate to think how we’d be financially, this is our main time of year for tourism; everyone loves coming up here.”
And for others it’s even too soon to think about the economic impact.
Barry Barker, owner of the Hop Inn Motel in Cann River, is holed up in Warragul after being evacuated from the town days ago. He said Christmas was the busiest time of year and his motel was currently empty. “I don’t know the impact. I don’t even know what day it is today.”
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