Tourism destinations within a short drive of the city are riding a holiday boom as Victorian day trippers and holidaymakers rush out for spontaneous breaks while they remain free to travel.

This time last year Melbourne was poised to enter an extended lockdown that proved catastrophic for the state’s tourism sector.

Alpacas Anzac and Sydney are a big attraction for families at Braeside Mount Macedon Country Retreat.Credit:Joe Armao

But now the winter school holiday rush is helping to reinvigorate tourism businesses close to Melbourne as city dwellers embrace the outdoors.

Lockdowns interstate are also driving the trend towards short, last-minute holidays and serving as a reminder that restrictions can be announced quickly in Victoria when COVID-19 outbreaks occur.

Sixty kilometres north of Melbourne’s CBD, Clare Eshuys, owner of the Mount Macedon Trading Post cafe and general store, said the first week of the school holidays had been particularly busy.

“Especially as soon as the sun comes out there seems to be people swarming from everywhere,” she said. “People just go for a drive.”

Dianah Bee and two-year-old Max Bee at Mount Macedon Trading Post.Credit:Joe Armao

Macedon Ranges Accommodation Association president Andrew Towner said the region was hit hard by COVID-19, with Melbourne the primary source of its visitors. But he said operators were reporting strong bookings for July.

“We’ve witnessed a growing trend of visitors seeking the fresh country air and beautiful natural surroundings, but not too far from home,” he said.

Mr Towner’s accommodation business, Braeside Mount Macedon Country Retreat, had been running at 95 per cent capacity before Victoria’s lockdown. But weekends are now almost booked out until October.

He said the chickens and the alpacas, Sydney and Anzac, are the star attractions for families at his retreat, plus the kangaroos that emerge at dusk.

Ruby O’Callaghan, 4, Molly O’Callaghan, 5, and William O’Callaghan, 3, at Braeside Mount Macedon Country Retreat.Credit:Joe Armao

Victorian Tourism Industry Council chief executive Felicia Mariani said there was a “halo effect” around Melbourne where people were flocking to places such as the Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Ranges, Phillip Island and Macedon Ranges to grab quick holidays while they could.

“They’re not going to travel five hours when they’re staying only two or three nights,” she said.

And Victorians were reluctant to book trips far in advance, even locally, for fear of having to cancel if restrictions changed.

“People do want to stay close to home,” Ms Mariani said. “Everyone is very scared about travelling interstate.”

Saladin Lodge owner Kim Rycroft.Credit:Eddie Jim

Marysville Triangle Business and Tourism Association committee member Kim Rycroft said Melburnians were taking short and spontaneous holidays but still wanted to feel like they had escaped to the country.

Ms Rycroft, who runs a bed and breakfast business and produce store in Narbethong, said people wanted reassurance about cancellation policies in case restrictions changed.

“We totally understand and our hearts are with them. Of course we’re going to be flexible,” she said.

Nillumbik Business and Tourism Association president Richard Dovile noticed many people taking quick holidays on a whim. He said an open-cellars event at local wineries was particularly popular with day trippers last month.

On the border of Victoria and NSW tourism businesses face a more challenging situation with Greater Sydney now in lockdown. Murray Regional Tourism chief executive Mark Francis said bookings were improving but recent lockdowns and border closures had hurt the local tourism sector.

“Consumer confidence around our border remains one of our key challenges,” he said.

Mr Francis said the region’s tourism industry had lost $1.1 billion in the year to December and was expected to take three years to fully recover to pre-pandemic conditions.

Victoria’s tourism industry has been hit hardest by lockdowns and outbreaks of coronavirus.

Victoria’s tourism industry suffered a $918 million loss in the March quarter.Credit:Paul Jeffers

New figures released this week by Tourism Research Australia revealed the state’s tourism sector suffered a $918 million loss in the March quarter.

While regional areas enjoyed increased visitation and spending in the March quarter, all of Australia’s capital cities endured declines in both spending and trips.

Across the nation overnight spending plummeted by $45.7 billion in the year to March, the data showed.

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