IN January, Frank Future, 65, thought of retiring.
"Then I thought, 'Nah, I'll probably just want to go sailing anyway," says the affable merchant naval officer turned lighthouse keeper turned cruise boat operator. "I've always wanted to earn my income from the sea, and after 25 years I still love it."
Mr Future's passion for his home of Port Stephens, where his company Imagine Cruises runs whale- and dolphin-watching joy trips, is possibly the key ingredient which has helped seen him transform his business to a virtual operation.
If he can't take tourists out on his boat, he will do his best to bring the ocean to them online. Because, he reasons, if Australians are watching live-stream Taronga TV of enclosed zoo animals in Sydney, chances are they'll like his footage of sea creatures at large.
He and photographer Brent Mail have launched virtual tours at portstephenslive.com. For now the project is for love, not money.
"The virtual experience will never replace being there but they can see and ask questions live," Mr Future says.
"Sponsorship is an option but it is just about letting people know the doors are open and we are ready for business when we are allowed to."
When is the crucial word, for so many businesses, including those in Port Stephens who earn their keep from the picturesque setting.
"We are all fiercely proud of it and keeping it as it is - most people including residents are all involved in tourism," says Mr Future.
"When I first sailed into the port in 1977 there were two restaurants in town, now there are 40 or more and everyone who lives here has benefited from it."
The NSW Labor Opposition has called on the Berejiklian Government to work with Destination NSW to release a comprehensive recovery plan for the tourism industry across NSW after the twin shocks of the 2019-2020 bushfire season and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The Government needs to be assisting operators to develop new business models which can cope with the massive reductions in patronage, both by regulation and the change in behaviours that we have seen through the pandemic," Opposition tourism spokesman Jenny Aitchison says. " The tourism industry was the first to close, and will be significantly slower to get back to whatever constitutes the new normal."
Mr Future said last summer's tourism was slowed by the bushfires, with people less willing to travel, before the coronavirus hit. Closing his business, he was "humbled" to join the Centrelink queue, "with the whole of Port Stephens".
He has drawn on his own savings to keep Imagine Cruises afloat. He has not yet applied for JobKeeper, saying the company would have had to borrow too much before it kicked in.
"We are all permanent part-timers, the roster is weather dependent, we only get paid when we work. We've been able to broker things with berthing fees but insurances and outgoings have to be paid. It's been a struggle," he says.
Convinced tourism will be the "last thing to open up", he invested what he could in virtual tours. It has been a steep technical learning curve however as whale watching season begins now in earnest, the business is ready to capture it on video. "It's about showcasing activities and venues around the Port, to keep people's focus alive until we are back travelling again," he says.
As a lad, Mr Future joined the merchant navy then left his native England and emigrated to Australia in 1974. He later came to Port Stephens area to be a caretaker of the Point Stephens Lighthouse on Fingal Island.
In 1995 he founded Imagine Cruises with fellow sailor and conservationist Yves Papin, both mortgaging their homes and recruiting about 20 family members and friends as shareholders.
"Our motherhood company statement is to protect and promote our wonderful marine environment, and to that extent we've always donated to help good causes in related research," he says.
The business has grown from initial dolphin watching tours to include whale watching in the cooler months, boosting local tourism already on the rise from vacationers and business conference groups
It isn't hugely profitable, he says, but it's never been in debt, has employed many and provided great joy.
Mr Future hopes to reopen by July. In the interim, he's widening the virtual net.
"We are planning a virtual kangaroo tour at Port Stephens golf club. Anyone who wants to show visitors kangaroos always goes there, because they are always standing around the 18th hole."
Together, not Alone is a partnership between Out of the Square, the Newcastle Herald and the Greater Bank. Its aim is to inspire some positivity in these difficult times and will feature a series of stories that explore kindness, innovation, creativity, celebration and mindfulness among businesses and the community.
If you have a story worth telling, contact Penelope Green: email@example.com
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