By Kirra Grimes

INNOVATION and diversification are the answer to reviving an economy “decimated” by the impacts of the summer bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Bass Coast Shire Council.

The shire’s latest economic development snapshot revealed that, due to a heavy reliance on tourism and related industries, Bass Coast had taken the biggest hit of all Gippsland Local Government Areas during the pandemic, with 10.5 per cent of the local workforce losing their jobs between March 14 and April 18, 2020, compared to 9.7 per cent in East Gippsland, 9.3 percent in South Gippsland, 9.1 per cent in Wellington, 8.8 per cent in Baw Baw, and 8.4 per cent in Latrobe.

While some businesses, such as supermarkets, pharmacies, delivery and cleaning services, hardware stores, and nurseries, had prospered and in some cases employed additional staff to meet demand, others, such as those in the entertainment/arts, recreation, retail, hospitality, accommodation, and tourism sectors had been severely impacted and “in many cases are only surviving due to government subsidies,” the Bass Coast Shire Council Economic Development Strategy (2016-2021) Year Four Snapshot states.

But there have also been many inspiring stories of creativity and collaboration, such as Mat Bowtell of Cowes, who rapidly transformed his ‘Free 3D Hands’ prosthetics manufacturing operation to produce medically-approved face shields which he then supplied free of charge to Bass Coast Health and other medical facilities.

It’s this sort of approach that will be key to the shire’s economic recovery, Bass Coast councillors agreed at their August meeting, highlighting the need for businesses to be alert to new opportunities and ready to respond to challenges.

Island Ward Cr Michael Whelan was optimistic about the opportunities presented by the forthcoming Bass Coast University Centre, if it could provide a skilled workforce for an expanded economy including industries harnessing new, ‘green’ technologies.

“That has to be how we pivot,” he said. “If we can get young minds, train them here, and feed those young minds into jobs… The opportunities in the green economy are immense if we go for them.”

Continuing to attract public and private investment in the area would also be key to economic growth and job creation, councillors said, with Cr Bruce Kent emphasising the importance of getting infrastructure projects to the“shovel-ready” stage to increase chances of funding success.


Boosting domestic tourism

With Phillip Island being the community most reliant on tourism in Victoria and the second most reliant in Australia, councillors agreed on the need to broaden the shire’s visitor economy strategy to protect against shocks such as the pandemic, which has seen a dramatic downturn in international visitors and the mass cancellation of events, including the Phillip Island Whale Festival, Island Story Gatherers Festival and San Remo Fishing Festival.

Ideas discussed at the August council meeting about the future direction of the Phillip Island and San Remo Visitor Economy Strategy included a continued focus on promoting the region as a sustainable tourism destination; showcasing its natural environment and cultural heritage, including through an expanded network of walking paths and trails; and exploring opportunities in agri-tourism.

With recent initiatives to boost international tourism, such as marketing to the cruise ship industry, in doubt due to the pandemic’s impacts on travel, there will be a big shift towards the domestic market and promoting off-peak/year-round visitation, through new events such as an Inverloch Yoga Festival and a Bass Coast Swim, Bike, Run Weekend; and new attractions including day spas, and luxury accommodation such as a proposed Phillip Island Hot Springs development.

Travel vouchers for domestic tourists, similar to those recently distributed by the Tasmanian government, were also raised as a possibility.

Council aims to improve accessibility on the Island to eventually see it become known as the Accessible Tourism Capital of Australia.

Western Port Ward Cr Clare Le Serve suggested expanding the strategy to make it a Bass Coast-wide vision that encouraged visitors to explore beyond Phillip Island and increase overnight stays compared to day trips.