March 28, 2020 09:22:16
When Severine Demanet and Rodney Dunn started their paddock-to-plate cooking school in 2008, Tasmania’s Derwent Valley wasn’t a tourism or dining hotspot.
Tasmania — an island off an island — had long been a destination for grey nomads, but it had yet to be branded as one of Australia’s must-see destinations.
“Back then, lots of people thought we were quite crazy to be opening a cooking school in such a regional area,” Demanet says.
“Who would come? It was sort of off the beaten track.”
But 12 years on, the couple’s punt has well and truly paid off.
The cooking classes have been a hit with interstate and local customers, and in 2017 they opened the Agrarian Kitchen eatery.
Serving up local Tasmanian produce in a heritage-listed, high-ceilinged former asylum 30 minutes north west of the Tasmanian capital of Hobart, the restaurant frequently wins accolades and tops good food guides.
The couple and their business are part of a clean, green, edgy brand that’s taken Tasmania a long time to develop.
But now, their restaurant is empty and the classes are cancelled.
In a bid to protect the island state from coronavirus, would-be visitors and tourists have been told in no uncertain terms, do not come to Tasmania.
And if you’re already here, go home.
For Demanet and Dunn, the effects of the shutdowns are being felt keenly.
Usually, they employ 26 staff. The full-timers have been stood down on leave, but the casuals have been let go.
The business’ gardener is the only staff member to be kept on, in the knowledge that food security is a priority and any re-opening will require produce.
“It’s quite a heartbreaking thing for us to have to do,” Demanet said.
“We’ve always said we wouldn’t leave any of our staff behind.”
‘We weren’t sexy, we weren’t cool’
In the 1990s, Tasmania’s tourism scene was the domain of bus tours and caravan holidays.
But the introduction of cheaper and more frequent flights made the island state accessible for the long-weekend trip many interstate travellers were seeking.
Bob Annells was the chairman of Tourism Tasmania from 2006 to 2011, and the chief executive in the late 80s and early 90s.
“For a while, we weren’t sexy, we weren’t cool,” he said.
Then the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) — nestled in Hobart’s northern suburbs and dreamed into existence by David Walsh, an art collector and professional gambler — opened in 2011.
It kicked the Tasmanian brand in a new direction — running parallel to that was a step-up of the state’s food and wine scene.
“All these things built a momentum, and decision-makers and others opened up to the idea that Tasmania could be edgy,” Annells says.
Tourists were flocking to the island where oysters, wine and wilderness were in good supply.
But with its popularity came a conflict locally between a desire for big-spending tourists, and sensitive developments.
Some Tasmanians questioned whether their state had hit peak tourism, and worried about holiday accommodation pushing up the price of long-term rentals.
There were concerns jewels such as Wineglass Bay and Bruny Island were being loved to death.
But there’s no denying Tasmania’s economy benefits immensely from tourism.
In the year to September 2019, Tasmania had 1.32 million visitors, who spent about $2.53 billion.
The vast majority of those visitors came from interstate, but about 293,000 people were visiting from overseas.
Now that industry is at a standstill.
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‘Narrow’ economy makes Tasmania vulnerable
Independent economist Saul Eslake says Tasmania’s hard-fought brand is resilient, and is unlikely to be erased by the coronavirus crisis.
“The issue for Tasmania of course is that tourism represents almost 10 per cent of Tasmania’s economy directly and indirectly, and … employs almost 17 per cent of Tasmania’s workforce — each of which is much bigger than in any other state or territory,” he says.
Tasmania’s brand is also heavily reliant on small businesses, which are more vulnerable to interruptions to cash flow and more likely to need to lay off staff.
The State and Federal Governments have been rolling out stimulus measures aimed at small businesses, including payroll tax relief and emergency support grants.
“But if this does last longer than the three to six months that people have been talking about, then it could well be that the impact on Tasmanian businesses ends up being proportionally greater,” Eslake says.
Tasmania has been slower than other jurisdictions to recover from downturns in the past, taking almost nine years to regain its pre-GFC employment level while the rest of Australia managed to do so in about 12 months.
“That reflects the fact that Tasmania’s economy is less diverse, more narrowly based than that of larger states, and it probably couldn’t be otherwise,” Eslake says.
“We are more vulnerable to some aspects of the current downturn because tourism, retail and the like are bigger shares of our economy.”
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‘Clean, green’ image will aid recovery
Annells says Tasmania’s brand has survived big hits, such as the 1989 pilots dispute which disrupted air travel and had a major impact on tourism.
And, he says, it’s worth remembering there hasn’t been a real drop in demand.
“There is of course a drop in demand simply because the supply of the essential elements has dried up,” he says.
“People can no longer get access to the sorts of things they want to do and they can’t travel here even if they wanted to.
“This doesn’t mean that people don’t want to come here, it just means they can’t.”
He believes there’s a chance the Tasmanian brand might be more desired post-pandemic, when travellers might want to avoid large, urban centres.
“The only benefit to us really that comes out of this very difficult time, is that if Tasmania manages to avoid the very worst of this experience, then that plays into people’s sense that we are detached, we are removed, we are something different,” he said.
“We are clean and green. And I think that will help us recover more quickly.”
For Annells, the key to a successful re-launch of Tasmania’s brand will be to keep training people in hospitality and tourism.
“Because one of our big troubles is going to be when the floodgates do open, and I strongly believe they will, there will be huge demand for staff,” he says.
“A lot of people will have moved on, international students might have moved on for example, and there is a real potential for us to have a shortage of qualified staff.
“And that would be the ultimate in irony, is if we could re-open our industry but people simply can’t get appropriately qualified staff to deliver the experience.
“That would be another tragedy.”
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Supported small business ‘really easy’ to re-launch
Tasmania’s brand is such a big deal to the State Government, that it turned Brand Tasmania into a statutory authority.
Its chief executive Todd Babiak says without trade networks and tourists, the focus is now on getting Tasmanians to support each other and be creative.
“But I don’t want to be Pollyanna about it. This is going to be terrible, absolutely. Because we are selling to the world and the world can’t necessarily buy the way they were buying before,” he says.
“This is a bit of a boutique economy, and small business is the engine of this economy and it is really difficult for small businesses right now.
“The only good thing that comes out of this is it’s really easy for small businesses, if they’re supported, to re-launch, to start back up again.”
Back at the Agrarian Kitchen, Dunn is optimistic about the future post-coronavirus.
“I like to think that the clean, green image of Tasmania and certainly everything that it offers will be attractive to people,” he said.
“If people do have money left and want a holiday, we feel we would feature quite highly on their list.”
March 28, 2020 08:23:55