“Go home,” the message from the state and federal government has been clear as caravan parks across the state were closed at midnight last Thursday. There were no new guests allowed in, not even “essential workers” seeking shelter. The Caravan Industry Association of Australia estimated there were 80,000 people staying in caravan parks across Australia this week who were told they need to go back to their permanent residence – if they had on – immediately.
Tumut’s Riverglade Caravan Park typically welcomes 1500 people over Easter. After Manager Matt Pearce ushered all non-essential guests out of the park last week, he was left with just 20 people across 10 sites.
“They’re disappointed,” said Matt of his guests. “A lot of them had come from Sydney, in the highly populated areas, and they’re confused because out here in the country, they’re staying in their caravans with hardly anyone around them, isolated. Now they’re forced to go back into the city, but they felt much safer here.
“They understand, but they’re a bit disappointed and a bit confused about why.”
Mr Pearce said most of his guests were over the age of 65 and felt like it was more dangerous for them and for other communities if they suddenly had to get on the move again.
Prior to the announcement, Riverglade didn’t have any young families in the caravan park and only a handful of “essential workers,” who have been doing repair work after last summer’s bushfires, replacing power lines in remote areas and similar tasks. The essential workers have been allowed to stay, for now, but Matt said even that could change.
Despite the difficulties for campers and park owners, the government’s decision was welcomed by the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, which reported hearing about “convoys of Grey Nomads moving into rural communities.”
Association President Dr John Hall said, “quite frankly, that’s not acceptable.”
“This is not a grey area,” said Dr Hall. “They are putting themselves in harm’s way by moving and circulating in the community, and that is not how you socially isolate, people!”
Dr Hall said the extra people in town place an inappropriate burden on rural medical supplies and groceries. He cheekily suggested, “park you RV or caravan in your backyard, turn off the air-con, let in the flies, and use your imagination to live the dream.”
While the Association may be right about the strain on rural supplies, Mr Pearce said there wasn’t enough consideration given for those who were being told to go home.
“Many of those people have been here for a number of weeks. It’s not like they just turned up yesterday. They’ve been here for quite a while, so they feel like moving places them at risk, whereas if they’d stayed where they were, they might have felt safer.”
Mr Pearce said there were close to a dozen caravans which came specifically to avoid the virus in the big cities. While the campers understood the reasons behind the clamp-down, they weren’t left with many options for the long drive back home.
“It’s hard for people that are on the road already, if they’re in the southern parts of NSW and their home town is in the northern parts of NSW,” he said.
“It’s quite a drive for them to get home and they’re not allowed to stop into any caravan parks on the way home.”
Riverglade had to turn away travellers who were heeding the government’s advice and heading home on Thursday, hoping to break their journeys in Tumut. Matt said he’s not sure where those people went for the night, because he wasn’t allowed to take them in.
“We weren’t given any notice at all. 48 hours notice would have helped. It puts people at risk, having to drive a long way to get home.”
For the caravan park, it will be a difficult few weeks or months. The land is owned by the Snowy Valleys Council and leased to the park. They have seven employees to pay, currently earning a small amount of income from those essential workers and a few Grey Nomads who have no permanent address. It’s a far cry from the 1,500 they usually see coming through at this time.
“We’ll really hurt,” said Matt. “April is probably our biggest month of the year. It hurts more coming off the back of the bushfires and a pretty quiet summer because of that. We really needed a big March and April to get us through the winter.”
No matter what, Matt said he’ll keep his staff on the books, even if he’s only able to give them a few hours of work deep cleaning and doing maintenance around the property. Eventually, the park will reopen, and he’s confident his loyal customers will be back. He said there’s no chance that Riverglade will close, no matter how long the pandemic lasts. It just might be a long time before the tourists are back.
“It’s too good not to [survive],” said Matt with confidence. “It’s probably the most popular caravan park in regional NSW.
“It’s a beautiful environment, you’ve got such a large supporter base of customers that return here every year. Those people aren’t going to go away. Even if it takes 12 months before we reopen, it wouldn’t matter, those people are always going to come back here.”
Matt’s concern is more for the other businesses in town who rely on tourism in order to survive and are facing the threat of going under.
“What’s important is getting the tourism economy of Tumut going again as quickly as we can once this is all over. There’s a lot of businesses relying on tourism to keep them going.”