Local businesses call for more support as they struggle to stay afloat

TOUGH TIMES: Byron Bay Chamber of Commerce President Mark Ryan says Byron Bay businesses are struggling. Photo: Kate O'Neill
TOUGH TIMES: Byron Bay Chamber of Commerce President Mark Ryan says Byron Bay businesses are struggling. Photo: Kate O'Neill

Dean Fuchs has never seen it so quiet.

The operator of Ballina-based whale watch tour company, Out of the Blue Adventures, says the ongoing lockdown in Sydney over the past month has made things 'super tough' for his business.

"This is the worst for us because it's our peak season.

"We would make at least half of our annual income in July. We're down probably 80 percent on previous years.

"Besides us being in lockdown, it's probably one of the worst situations we could be in."

While Fuchs' office staff have been busy: "we've had heaps of admin work with people cancelling and moving their bookings," he says, it's a different story for his guides and skippers, who've lost most of their work.

Ballina-based whale watch tour operator Dean Fuchs says business is down 80 per cent on previous years.

Ballina-based whale watch tour operator Dean Fuchs says business is down 80 per cent on previous years.

SLOWEST IN A DECADE

In the nearby tourist town of Byron Bay - usually bustling with visitors - there's talk that it's the slowest it's been in a decade.

Along accommodation strip Shirley St, almost all the motels have their vacancy sign up. In the CBD, cafes are cutting back their hours and staff are losing hours. Parking spots stand empty, and shop assistants wait patiently behind counters for a customer.

For businesses in Byron and the surrounding areas who rely on a steady stream of visitors, it's the hardest it's been since the start of the pandemic

"To be frank, it's terrible," says Byron Bay Chamber of Commerce president Mark Ryan.

"It's been a continual phase of shut downs at potentially the busiest periods in Byron Bay. All of these shutdowns have had to be made, but it's just really heartbreaking that it always seems to happen right on those times."

He says the recent cancellation of the Byron Writers Festival was yet another blow to businesses already reeling from the loss of Bluesfest at Easter and the Sydney lockdown in the July school holidays.

"The demographic that generally comes to the Writers Festival is of an age where they spend money, they stay in nice quality accommodation, they go out to dinners, they go on tours - they're in Byron Bay experiencing Byron Bay. It's one of the most high yielding events in Byron Bay," he said.

The cancellation of the Byron Writers Festival, which was scheduled for early August, is the latest blow to Byron Bay and the surrounding region's economy. Photo: Kurt Peterson

The cancellation of the Byron Writers Festival, which was scheduled for early August, is the latest blow to Byron Bay and the surrounding region's economy. Photo: Kurt Peterson

Even in towns that do not traditionally rely on tourists, businesses are feeling the pinch. In Alstonville, Trident Fish and Grill shop owner Chris Photiou says the last week has been 'completely dead': "The main street is just empty. The car parks are empty, the cafes, everywhere, I think everyone's taking the brunt of it."

He says the restrictions combined with the withdrawal of support like Jobseeker and Jobkeeper meant no-one had money to spend.

 BOOKINGS AT ZERO 

Back in the Byron Shire, a local motel manager who did not wish to be identified, said bookings had gone from 100 percent to almost zero, with no work for the five housekeepers it usually employs.

She said border closures meant business had just dried up overnight, and while things would go back to normal when the lockdowns were over, it would be impossible to claw back what had been lost.

MORE SUPPORT NEEDED

Dean Fuchs says the government support offered was not enough.

"It will keep food on the table and a few people employed but you can't replace the damage that's done - and I think it's the same for a lot of businesses.

"It's a drop in the ocean compared to what we've lost."

Mark Ryan from the Byron Bay Chamber of Commerce agrees.

"It's certainly not anywhere near where they would normally be trading and where they'd probably need to be to be paying their staff and their outgoing and rents and the like."

"You have businesses that really rely on that holiday trade to make up for slower periods throughout the year and they've all been taken away, so don't be surprised if businesses let go of a lot of employees, or even close up shop."

Don't be surprised if businesses let go of a lot of employees, or even close up shop.

Byron Bay Chamber of Commerce President Mark Ryan
Tour guide Andy Taylor of Cape Byron Kayaks. The business has lost virtually all of its bookings.

Tour guide Andy Taylor of Cape Byron Kayaks. The business has lost virtually all of its bookings.

Alice Livingston of Cape Byron Kayaks says the current situation is devastating.

"We've got no bookings. We're 95 percent down," she said.

"We're taking a couple of people out here and there. With those numbers, by the time you pay fees you go backwards really."

She says more government support, including from Byron Shire Council - which the business pays licence fees to - was needed to ride out the coming months.

"We're not really going to return to anything like normal until the international borders open, and that's not going to be for a long time," she said.

Meanwhile, Byron mayoral candidate Bruce Clarke has called for council to set up a One Stop Support Shop for residents suffering from financial and social stress due to COVID-19, saying it is "critical for small business who have had to shut their doors or are bleeding money, as well as individuals who have been stood down or are working reduced hours, to connect with experts in areas such as finance, legal matters, counselling, mental health, housing, and existing community support resources."