Nelson Bay's suffering businesses have welcomed the reopening of NSW regional travel and a likely influx of tourists in June, but not everyone in the town is celebrating.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced on Wednesday that NSW residents would be free to travel within the state from June 1.
The news prompted a flurry of accommodation bookings in Port Stephens, a seaside destination popular with Sydneysiders.
Destination Port Stephens chairman Andrew Macdonald racked up $3000 in online bookings at his Hotel Nelson by 8am "before I'd even made my first coffee".
"People are already responding," he said.
"We've always had the line that as soon as the health authorities and the government said we're ready to open, then we are welcoming people with open arms. We are ready."
He hoped Port Stephens would attract NSW and Victorian travellers who would otherwise have gone to Queensland in June.
The Port Stephens economy is heavily reliant on tourism dollars, but the area is also home to one of Australia's oldest populations.
Many local residents reacted negatively on Wednesday to the prospect of "hordes arriving from Sydney", suggesting on social media forums that the government had moved too quickly and was putting the economy before health concerns.
"The older demographic will suffer by this way too soon decision. Opening the floodgates will put many of us in hospital," one person commented when Port Stephens MP Kate Washington asked on Facebook if the town was ready for tourists to return.
Port Stephens tourism operator Rod Waski, who owns Shoal Bay SUP and two airbnb properties, said "vigilante groups" had been "abusing" people with interstate number plates "even though they live here".
Mr Waski, who reopened the stand-up paddleboard business on Tuesday, said he had seen some "fairly awful sentiment" expressed on Nelson Bay Facebook groups.
"Most definitely there will be people who won't welcome people back into the town, who think it's too early," he said.
Ms Washington told the Newcastle Herald that Port Stephens was at the forefront of the debate about balancing competing health and economic impacts while easing coronavirus restrictions.
"I have no doubt the tourism operators are feeling relieved, but it sits alongside a lot of anxiety in the community around the vulnerability of our area," she said.
"We've got 30,000 residents over the age of 60, we've got a lot of aged care facilities, so we've got significant susceptibility to the virus if it were to be brought here."
Definitely there will be people who won't welcome people back into the town, who think it's too early. It takes a while for these new messages to sink in.Port Stephens tourism operator Rod Waski
Ms Berejiklian said only last week that the state was not ready for recreation travel restrictions to ease.
But on Wednesday she said the rate of community transmission was "less than we anticipated at this time".
"You can go on a holiday with your family and friends, but know the holiday you're taking from 1 June will be different to a holiday you have taken before," she said.
"We want people to enjoy themselves and feel free, but please know that nothing we do is the same in a pandemic."
Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the travel announcement would boost regional economies.
"I said back in March that you weren't welcome [in regional NSW] and we'll see you around Christmas. Well, Christmas has come early," he said.
NSW Health reported on Wednesday four new cases of COVID-19, all from overseas travellers in quarantine.
More than 7000 people were tested in the 24 hours to 8pm on Tuesday.
The Hunter New England Health district has not recorded a new case in more than a month and says the only way the virus will return to the area is if someone imports it.
Mr Waski said the community was struggling to make sense of mixed messages from government about the seriousness of the epidemic.
"We were all told that this was scary, scary stuff and we all have to stay away from each other and keep away, and ... it takes a while for these new messages to sink in.
"Things are changing so quickly and it takes people a while to adapt, however, we all appreciate the fact we are a tourist town."
Ms Washington said Port Stephens was "hoping to have visitors, but we're hoping they approach it also with caution and care".
"There's an opportunity to attract visitors who might not otherwise have come here in winter, but it's one we've got to be so careful about.
"My biggest fear is that we have a Newmarch House in our area. That is the last thing anyone wants to see up here."
A 93-year-old woman on Tuesday became the 17th resident to die at Newmarch House nursing home in western Sydney, taking the national death toll to 100.
"Knowing that tourism is the hardest-hit sector for job losses and that most of our businesses on the peninsula rely on tourism, it's really struggling and we want to turn it around," Ms Washington said.
"We want to support our local businesses because they are our lifeblood and without them there is a lot of pain."
Regional unemployment figures due out on Thursday are expected to show the early impact of virus restrictions on the labour market.
National figures last week showed 594,000 people had been thrown out of work in April, the biggest monthly fall since the start of official record keeping in 1978.
Mr Macdonald said Port Stephens tourism operators had suffered enough and were keen to see a surge of visitors over the Queen's birthday long weekend from June 6 to 8.
"We're fed up with no people, that's for sure," he said.
"I know the politicians and the mayor have got the residents to think about, but we're here to promote tourism.
"The public need to be ready to welcome guests."
Mr Macdonald plans to open his two restaurants in Nelson Bay and Newcastle on June 3 and hopes they will be able to seat more than 10 people by the long weekend.
"We really hope we can get to 20, and that will make a viable holiday [for visitors]. A lot of businesses will be open at 20.
"I think the government hasn't taken this step lightly. They've been pretty cautious.
"If everybody is doing the right thing safety-wise in the businesses, I think we can provide a safe place for people to come."
Tourism Accommodation Australia NSW welcomed the return of regional travel but urged the government to ease limits on dining.
"It doesn't make sense that a large venue with multiple rooms on multiple floors is restricted to 10 people for the entire premises, the same as a small cafe," chief executive Michael Johnson said.
Port Stephens tourism operators had a preview of a new branding campaign on Wednesday afternoon.
The long-planned marketing push, backed by Destination NSW, was planned to start in August but could be brought forward.
Ms Waski said One Mile and Birubi beaches had been busy last weekend after some restrictions eased.
He expected visitors to "flood" into Port Stephens on the June long weekend.
Nelson Bay-based Moonshadow-TQC Cruises announced on Tuesday that it had been given permission to resume cruises from Wednesday next week.
"With our newly revised procedures, we are confident we can safely get people back on the water just in time for our highly anticipated whale season," the company said.
Ms Berejiklian also announced that galleries, libraries and museums would open from June 1 with "strict new protocols in place".
Libraries will be encouraged to dedicate opening times to high-risk groups and books will be quarantined for 24 hours before returning to the shelves.
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