It's clear 2021 hasn't started the way we were all hoping after the year we all wanted (and needed) to forget.
There has been much talk that Australian regional tourism is booming and, no doubt, some destinations are.
Sadly, Wollongong isn't. We are in a unique situation by virtue of being included in the Greater Sydney region on December 20.
Our businesses copped it badly.
They experienced cancellation rates far exceeding anything ever seen before, well over 50 per cent of confirmed bookings across the board.
Businesses hoping for the opportunity to get cash registers ticking over at the busiest time of the year faced with calling people and cancelling bookings, bookings they saw as their way of getting through to next spring, their light at the end of the tunnel.
Businesses who had competitors literally hundreds of metres away being able to offer business conditions far more favourable than they could dream of, watching business walk out the door.
Businesses who had stores on either side of the magical Windang bridge who saw completely different trading conditions and could not understand why.
These Wollongong businesses are not booming, far from it.
All levels of government have been forced to make hard decisions over the last 12 months and I believe, without exception, they have done a wonderful job. However, this is not over yet, by a long shot, and Wollongong needs help more than ever.
One thing that has become increasingly apparent as we work through the pandemic is the importance of visitors to the local economy. There is no business which does not benefit from increased visitation to the region. Visitors spend money, they support jobs and they provide a sense of vibrancy currently lacking in the Wollongong CBD.
Three things strike me as being vitally important to getting back on track in 2021:
The international borders will need to reopen before the economy sees any sense of a return to normal across a range of industries. But it is open interstate borders that are a non-negotiable way of keeping the doors of small business open.
Visitors need confidence that any money they commit to visiting other areas won't be lost with long-term offers or vouchers and date changes should these borders be shut with little or no notice.
Somehow, as a country we need to find a way to ensure that wherever possible, interstate borders stay open, for the good of local economies.
We need to find a way to ensure that ... interstate borders stay open.
There is no doubt that some industries (especially tourism and hospitality) and some regions (especially Wollongong) urgently need a federal government commitment to a means-tested extension of JobKeeper to keep their doors open any longer than April 1.
Without that commitment, we are facing something akin to the decimation of the tourism and hospitality industries in Wollongong and many other regions.
One in 12 people in Australia are employed in the tourism industry; many more are employed in industries supported by visitors.
No-one would argue that the current program should continue but there is a critical argument that some industries and locations are reliant on short-term, means-tested stimulus to keep local economies moving and people employed.
Without such an extension, we will see the real carnage caused by COVID-19 on April 1 when businesses begin shutting their doors and unemployment levels rise.
Greater Sydney Recovery Plan
As a city, we accepted inclusion in the Greater Sydney border and the pain that it entailed.
We endured the hard yards of the Greater Sydney restrictions and now more than ever, it is vital that borders are not redrawn and Wollongong is included in the recovery packages that return life back into the Greater Sydney economy.
It's arguably time as a city, we accepted it's far quicker to travel to Sydney CBD from Wollongong than Parramatta. The second international airport will be a quicker commute to Wollongong than Sydney CBD; our beaches will be the playground of the rapidly growing population of south-west Sydney because we are by far the closest and best alternative.
The sooner we accept, adapt, plan and enjoy the benefits we can take advantage of being the southern edge of Australia's international gateway, the better off we will be. Our wonderful escarpment can only provide a barrier for so long and it appears as though that time is up.
- Mark Sleigh is CEO of Destination Wollongong