TOURISM destinations across the Hunter are feeling the brunt of the Sydney lockdowns, with "local" visitors providing almost all of their custom at the weekend.
At Port Stephens yesterday, Shoal Bay beach was all but deserted on the sand and for much of Shoal Bay Road and Victoria Parade at Nelson Bay there were more empty parking spaces than there were cars.
It was a similar story at the Vineyards, with Bimbadgen at Pokolbin reporting just 30 people through the cellar door and restaurant on Saturday when as many as 600 could have normally been expected.
Port Stephens wasn't deserted when the Newcastle Herald visited yesterday, but everyone we spoke with said numbers were well down for a school holiday Sunday.
Destination Port Stephens chairman Andrew Macdonald said lockdowns had proved "politically popular" but certain sectors of the community, especially tourism and the arts, were paying the price.
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Mr Macdonald said interstate border closures had kept people at home and given Port Stephens "a bumper summer", but the industry was now doing it hard again as people became increasingly hesitant to travel, and to book travel in advance.
He said one of his businesses, Hotel Nelson, was running on "less than 10 per cent of its normal occupancy rate" while the other, the Little Nel Cafe, was on about 20 per cent of normal patronage.
Mel Turner from whale-watch operator Moonshadow-TQC Cruises said things were going well after the June long weekend but the June 19 lockdown "threw us into a spin with a large number of cancellations".
Things improved a bit this weekend and about 80 per cent of bookings were from Newcastle and the Hunter. Ms Turner said there was plenty of space on board, because the four-square-metre rule meant a maximum of 80 passengers per trip instead of the usual limit of 230.
At Birubi Point, Oakfield Ranch camel rides said business had been very slow, while at the nearby sandboarding outlets, the operators were all but twiddling their thumbs, with just 18 cars in a carpark they said would expect to normally be full.
Camel ride owner Rod Sansom said the Sydney lockdown had "smashed' the expected school holiday trade, and the estimated turnover was down by about three-quarters.
"We did do well at Christmas, that's the only thing that's saving us now," Mr Sansom said.
4WD Tours R Us Sandboarding operator Ian Boicos and his son Jai cut lonely figures at Birubi yesterday, as they waited for customers.
One group of six - two from the Hunter and four from Wee Waa in the state's west - returned from their ride while the Herald was there, but otherwise the dunes were all but deserted.
Next door at Sand Dune Safaris, owners Andrew Hay and Ana Zabaleta said business was "down by about 95 per cent".
Ms Zabaleta said she believed some tourism operators had "done well" out of closed borders but it was tough where they were and they had noticed a decline in spending when JobKeeper ended.
She said one saving grace had been the NSW government's Dine and Discover NSW voucher scheme, which has been extended until August 31.
Anyone with a MyServiceNSW account could download four $25 vouchers to spend with participating businesses.
Stall-holders at the markets at Neil Carroll Rotary Park at Fly Point said things had been much slower than normal, although they were buoyed by the turnout from local residents who were making up most of their custom.
At Bimbadgen at Pokolbin, general manager Belinda Stapleton said most of the venue's custom came from Sydney and the Central Coast and the drop in patronage meant "our team are all losing their shifts and obviously their way of life".
"The worst thing at this point is, our team are all losing their shifts and obviously their way of life," Ms Stapleton said.
"But because they are not in the designated lockdown zones, they cannot get any government assistance.
"The Hunter Valley hasn't been locked down, but we may as well be because there is no assistance for the [staff] individually."
With the JobKeeper scheme having ceased in March, this latest COVID outbreak and its restrictions have presented a new challenge for impacted businesses and workers.
The NSW government has offered up to $10,000 grants to NSW hospitality and tourism businesses, including those in regional NSW if they can prove a decline in turnover of 30 per cent or more over a two-week period after the lockdown began.
The federal government offers a COVID-19 Disaster Payment to individuals who lost work as a result of a lockdown, although it is not paid in the first week. Those who lose less than 20 hours of work can receive $325, while those lose more than 20 hours can apply for $500.
However, this payment is only available to those in Greater Sydney, including the Central Coast and other designated areas.
Ms Stapleton said Bimbadgen mainly had casual staff but the majority usually worked between 20 to 30 hours per week.
With a month's worth of weddings cancelled and the business's trading hours cut, most will miss out on a payday.
She said government assistance would be needed for impacted employees should the COVID restrictions continue to impact business.
"I think the government needs to understand that while they may not have designated the whole of NSW stay-at-home areas, the impact flows on," she said.
"Most of our visitation, especially being a tourist destination, comes from Sydney, the Central Coast and the areas people are not allowed to travel.
"We don't know that it's going to be just a two-week lockdown
"All of our brides had to make a decision; they've obviously got guests to let know and people who booked accommodation.
"So that flows onto all the accommodation providers.
"At the end of the day there's not a lot we can do about it, but it is pretty hard."
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