By Karen Buck
THE Granite Skywalk at the Porongurups has been such an outstanding success that Plantagenet tourism providers rate it as one of the major reasons for tourism in the area holding its own against the odds.
The $1.1-million dollar Skywalk, which opened in 2010, has seen visitor numbers in the area soar from about 9000 a year before it opened to a massive 60,000 last year.
At Easter this year thousands of visitors overflowed carparks and formed long queues to get to the Skywalk.
That success story aside, taking the temperature of the tourist industry in Plantagenet reveals mixed results.
While some providers say that they have definitely experienced a downturn in line with Tourism WA’s reported 20 percent slump in the region, they remain confident that the industry is holding steady. Some have diversified their businesses with great success, while others say that they’re puzzled by the reported slump because their visitor numbers are trending well. The one thing they all agree on is that they would love to see more natural attractions like the Skywalk developed across the region as tourist magnets.
Mount Barker Wine Producers’ spokesman and owner of Windrush Wines John Fletcher said it was up to the Mt Barker community to find Granite Skywalk equivalents and develop them. “[The Skywalk] has been a big drawcard for the region, and we need to find more things like that for people to go and see and do and touch and feel,” Mr Fletcher said. “People want an experience and a destination, so it’s terrific to see the shire put on its thinking cap around the issue.
“I understand that it’s looking to develop some tourist trails. These are the things that will bring people to the area.” Windrush was one of the success stories in the region and since the opening in 2016 of a café at the cellar door visitor numbers had increased, Mr Fletcher said.
“As for the reported reduction in visitors to the area, I think you have to put it into a bigger context. “Generally, the feedback I get from places, especially along Albany highway like Williams and Tenterden, is that they sometimes can’t keep up with the people they’re getting through.” Mr Fletcher conceded that some of the wineries had reported at least a 20 percent drop in cellar door visitors, but said there had been no closures due to the decline.
Galafrey Wines CEO and winemaker Kim Tyrer agreed. “We’ve definitely had a drop, but our cellar door is only one part of our winery business, so that isn’t especially concerning for us,” Ms Tyrer explained. “I’d say there’s been a slump in cellar door numbers across the board in Mt Barker, and one of the reasons is that while we have great wine tourism there’s not a lot of other tourism businesses to support it.”“In Denmark there are restaurants and cafés, the chocolate places, galleries, the toffee factory and all the rest, but in Mt Barker we’ve got a bakery, a couple of cafés and a few galleries, and it’s not enough.” “I think we’re still seen as a day trip or a drivethrough town.”
“The region struggles to attract the high-end tourists – we don’t have a five-star hotel, for instance, and camping and caravan people aren’t necessarily our market.”“It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg – you need more people to grow a business but you need to grow a business to attract more people,” she said. “I think it would be great to see some of the money put into bodies like the Amazing South Coast used to run local workshops and seminars, to help us grow and develop our skills. “We need the sort of support that promotes innovative, creative ways to develop the industry.”
Porongurup Promotions Association president and co-founder of Castle Rock Estate Wendy Diletti said that while the area lacked the benefit of flow-through traffic like Mt Barker, local visitor numbers had nevertheless remained good. “The Skywalk experience gives quite a lot of promotion to the area, as does the Porongurup Festival, our wines have a good profile, and accommodation seems to have picked up. By and large it’s going well,” Mrs Diletti said. “People do like to come to events, and when the Field of Light was on in Albany we noticed an increase in visitors coming through.” “I think people like to come to a region rather than just one place, so promoting a regional experience with attractions and events is good for us all.”
Sleeping Lady accommodation provider Nichola Broad said she was not sure how the information about decreased tourist numbers was gathered. “We certainly haven’t experienced a downturn – we’re doing pretty much the same as in previous years,” she said. “Things like the Field of Light and the Skywalk bring people in, and while there is the capacity for us to do more – which would be a good thing – our business is doing well.”
The decline in visitors in some parts of Plantagenet has also unexpectedly produced some positive results, by pushing providers to diversify their business in a bid to take up the slack.
Kendenup Lodge recently added a bar and café to its accommodation, and has seen more people coming through its doors as a result. “Our accommodation numbers through a normally quiet time were boosted by a threemonth booking from CBH,” proprietor Jane Robinson said. “Usually we book people in and then watch them head off to Mt Barker to eat, instead of spending their money in our town – so we opened the bar and café, and it’s really working.” Ms Robinson said that further plans for diversifying the business in the warmer months included an outdoor cinema, and Sunday sessions with live music.
Last September Karribank Country Retreat added to its attractions by opening the Karri On Bar, which has proved to be a great success. The bar, which also serves food, was the brainchild of Dan Blythe, who says it shifted the focus of the business dramatically. “AirBnb has definitely had an impact on accommodation numbers, so we looked at ways we could diversify,” Mr Blythe said. “A bar was a niche opportunity, and it’s worked really well. “We’ve seen an increase in local visitors from Albany, Mt Barker, the Stirlings and the Porongurups. “This has had a flow-on effect, with people booking functions and weddings, and this month our accommodation was booked out for an entire weekend for a 60th birthday celebration.”
The development of natural assets had strong potential to draw visitors into the area, Mr Blythe said. “Mountain biking, for instance, is something that draws a lot of people across the world wherever they’ve put in parks and tracks. I’d love to see something like that developed here.” The Plantagenet Shire council agrees. A trails master plan it developed in 2006 languished due other priorities and a lack of funding, but current work on a regional trails master plan by the Great Southern Centre for Outdoor Recreational Excellence is ramping up council’s interest.
Executive manager of strategic development Andrus Burdikis said that a working group had been formed to look at refreshing and developing the work done by council all those years ago. “We’re focused on the Porongurups area, where we’d like to utilise some existing trails, create some new ones and link them up,” Mr Burdikis said. “People could do a walk or bike circuit around the base of the Porongurups, then come back to town on current roads and road reserves, and link to the town bike network – which is only on paper at this stage, but is an obvious progression.”
Sealing Stirling Range drive, which is currently gravel and not accessible by people with hire vehicles, would be another tourism initiative that council would advocate for. “Not everyone is fit enough to use cycle or walk-trails, but if the drive through the Stirlings was sealed it would provide a fantastic natural experience,” Mr Burdikis said. “Driving the existing sealed road through the Porongurups, then linking to Chester Pass road and stopping off at Bluff Knoll before driving back through the ranges – well, that would be quite an experience!”
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