Just weeks ago, the Hebel pub was serving 80 meals a night — enough to feed the population of the south-west Queensland town four times over. But now the kitchen is so quiet, the crew is lucky to get four orders.
With the contagious Delta strain of COVID-19 spreading in New South Wales — and the state recording its highest ever daily number of new coronavirus infections last week — tourism in Queensland’s border towns has taken a major hit.
Hebel is one of many feeling the effects.
“It’s just not bopping like it was beforehand,” Hebel Hotel head chef, and general store manager Rachel Leonard said.
“Normally people will be straight in getting their coffees, getting on the road and telling us about their adventures, but there’s not really any of that anymore.
It’s the third Queensland-NSW border closure of the pandemic but rather than getting easier, operators say this one has hit particularly hard.
“I think it’s the seriousness of the nature of what’s unfolding in New South Wales,” Hebel Hotel owner Frank Deshon said.
“[Before] we had a lot of travellers coming through, a lot of campers, we were pretty well booked out just about every night.
“Everything has come to a very quick, grinding halt.”
Tourism operators on Queensland’s coast — who rely heavily on interstate tourism — took a hit when Greater Sydney was locked out last month, although the blow was softened by tourists from other areas snapping up cancellations.
But areas of outback and south west Queensland, as well as the Granite Belt, thrived on bookings from within the state.
Southern Queensland Country Tourism CEO Peter Homan said the confidence of even intra-state travellers was now affected.
“We’ve benefited from COVID in a way because people have travelled in their own backyard, ” he said.
“It’s reflecting in bookings being cancelled and also bookings that may have come that haven’t been coming.”
‘I can’t do it anymore’
In Goondiwindi, Gunsynd Motor Inn owner Tania Harvey believes anxiety is at an all-time high.
“Everybody’s too scared to travel because nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow,” she said.
“I have anxiety thinking about what it could mean for us.
“I don’t watch the news anymore. I’m so sick of it and I can’t do it anymore.”
It’s usually a busy time of year for the business but cancellations have left the diary looking woefully empty.
“A lot of our staff live week to week,” Ms Harvey said.
“Before the [latest] lockdowns it was great — we were cheering because we’d done it so hard last lockdown and we were really thriving.
Qld tourists still welcome
Last year the Balonne Shire, in south-west Queensland, launched two tourism campaigns with the slogans ‘Welcome Mate’ and ‘Welcome to Our Place’, encouraging travellers back to the region after pandemic restrictions lifted.
Mayor Samantha O’Toole said tourists had returned in droves but trade was slowing down as the NSW COVID situation worsened.
“We’ve definitely seen a significant drop off in numbers … particularly in the southern end of the shire where most of their traffic would be north-south [across the border],” she said.
She said the shire, in general, still felt comfortable welcoming Queensland tourists — and those from states with low COVID case numbers — but there were fewer of them looking to travel at the moment.
“Prior to the hard border closure there was a sense of uneasiness, I think,” she said.
“Now that the hard border closure is there with New South Wales, I think people are feeling fairly safe, but obviously the downside of that is it’s having significant impact on operators.”
At the Hebel pub and store, locals have stepped up to try to fill the gap left by tourists.
“The population is 20 but they really do come in, like you could see the same face twice a day,” Rachel Leonard said.
“They’re coming in asking us, are we okay?
“There really are great people.”