It may be the middle of winter, but on Tasmania’s East Coast tourism is a hot topic.
New visitor numbers show a huge increase in tourists flocking to the beautiful coastline, a 12 per cent jump over the last year.
But what is driving an additional 40,000 visitors to take the languid drive through rainforest-flecked mountains, through Pyengana to the north or Fingal to the south, to the fishing villages and beach shacks?
And how does a region sustain such growth?
In laid-back St Helens, despite the wintry blast of a cold June day, there are visitors asking all the questions necessary at the well-stocked information centre – did they miss the turn-off to Bay of Fires? Is there a good cafe in town? Where can they stay with children?
Along the walls are countless pamphlets – two whole rows dedicated to accommodation, mostly private bed and breakfasts or properties to rent, caravan parks and camping.
But amongst the pamphlets are some surprising offerings for a region better known for fishing, fresh oysters and pristine surf beaches.
Luxurious spas, upmarket restaurants, providores and trendy cafes, fashion stores and old-school pubs redeveloped into food and drink destinations, all with fresh glossy brochures.
There’s a feeling that the traditional holiday villages up and down the Great Eastern Drive are morphing, old sharing with new – family caravan parks with safari eco-tents, boutique sea tours with fishing trawlers.
Break O’Day Council mayor Mick Tucker believes the region is a sleeping giant ready to wake.
After 18 months of enormous tourism growth, Councillor Tucker is eager to welcome new industry, new tourism operators, into the municipality.
Tasmania as a whole is Australia’s most tourism-dependent state, with 1.26 million visitors during the year to March 2017.
Those visitors spent upwards of $2.23 billion in the state, a major reason for the state government’s $37 million tourism funding announced in the state budget.
Cr Tucker hopes to see state funding invested in the infrastructure needed to support those tourists, including major roads leading in and out of the East Coast.
“We are working in a collaborative approach with [the state government] … we’re trying to give them advice we see – as people at the coalface – what’s needed,” he said.
“They are very receptive to that and we are working with them to try to look at infrastructure there.”
Cr Tucker said the council wants to see the state government take over road infrastructure through St Helens to Binalong Bay and reclassify it as a primary tourist highway, as has happened further south in Freycinet.
“We have the numbers which are driving our boom, and we need better infrastructure – a small council like ourselves can’t afford the upgrade ourselves,” he said.
“With the implementation of the Great Eastern Drive, it’s been a gamechanger.”
One of the many new tourism providers capitalising on the tourism drive is Bay of Fires Eco Tours, in tiny Binalong Bay north of St Helens.
Just two years ago, Alisha Roper’s family started their first tourism venture, offering boutique sea experiences on their custom-designed boat from Binalong Bay to Eddystone Point and back, showcasing the entirety of the spectacular coastline.
“We have five passengers on board today, seven the day before, so for a new business in the middle of winter, that’s really not too bad. I think it’s busier this year than it was last year,” she said.
Since opening, the Eco Tours’ elegant shop front has quickly became a welcome source of information for lost tourists.
Last year Ms Roper’s family opened a two-bedroom cottage for tourists: they are fully booked until April next year.
Tourism Industry Council Tasmania chief executive Luke Martin, speaking on the March 2017 results of the Tasmanian Visitor Survey, pointed to accommodation as one of the East Coast’s greatest challenges.
One example is Binalong Bay, where permanent residents are outnumbered by visitors in peak season: and the demand continues further south.
Cr Tucker pointed to an $8-10 million development of a five-star caravan park near St Helens as an example of the future. “We have a couple of other quite major, significant accommodation proposals in front of us as well … we have quite a bit of activity which we hope will fill that void,” he said.
Aside from accommodation, East Coast Tourism chief executive Ruth Dowty believes there is still plenty of untapped potential in the region.
Away from the coastline are hidden gems – award-winning dairies, cold climate vineyards, berry farms, spectacular bushwalking tracks. To the south, Bicheno, Maria Island, and more.
Further inland, Weldborough is benefiting from Tasmania’s newly-beloved mountain bike riders, with a 66-kilometre bike track announced to lure riders to the coast.
But a key focus for Ms Dowty is ensuring that the East Coast learns from others’ mistakes: the Great Ocean Road, for instance, generates relatively little tourism money for regional operators, as visitors meander down to the Twelve Apostles and return to Melbourne for dinner.
“We’re very focused on making sure the [East Coast] experience is really excellent, even with higher numbers, and to ensure for the local industry and local businesses there’s a value in this,” she said.
Further south, Scamander Sanctuary Holiday Park is a traditional caravan park busy reinventing itself for the new tourist: in winter, that’s mostly international visitors willing to brave the cold for a cheaper price but the same beauty and adventure.
Transforming from a traditional caravan home, the park now boasts six safari-style cabins, merging canvas and timber, camping and luxury. Manager Kevin Carruthers took over the park in December after years of managing parks across Australia.
“This place has never been open in winter before, it’s the first time,” he said.
“We are getting visitors. Not so much interstate, a lot of overseas tourists and a lot of locals.”
A willingness to change, and an openness to new ideas, are two reasons Cr Tucker believes Break O’Day can make the most of their sizeable slice of Tasmania’s Great Eastern Drive into the future.
“We’ve got the highest growth rate of any [region] in Tasmania, and that’s fantastic – but you know the reality is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
“What we’re seeing with investment coming to our community – we’re going to be looking at a real different place in twelve to eighteen months to what we’ve got now.”