Flood perception hits Brisbane tourism hard

By Amelia Romanos

In January, Brisbane was hit by its worst floods in nearly 40 years, Amelia Romanos visited the city's tourist hot spots to see what impact the disaster is having four months on.

The beach at Tangalooma Resort. Photo / Amelia Romanos
The beach at Tangalooma Resort. Photo / Amelia Romanos

It seems to be true that a picture is worth a thousand words, because the images of Brisbane River bursting its banks, cars floating down streets and families abandoning their homes appear to have lingered in the memories of potential tourists long after the city came back to life.

I visited several tourism operators in the city this month and most told me they had experienced a significant drop in customers since the disaster - despite having been back in action for at least three months.

Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk said the priority in the immediate aftermath of the floods was to get essential services back up and running.

"However, we also recognised that there was little point having a city that was open for business if everyone thought the doors were still closed, which is why a campaign like Together Brisbane is so important to generating international interest and investment in Brisbane again," he said.

Now, rather than facing lasting damage from the floods, businesses are fighting the international perception that Brisbane has shut down.

River City Cruises is among those affected by the decrease in tourist traffic, and has been forced to think outside the box to keep finances up.

For a month following the floods, the Neptune was transformed into a salvage service, switching from guided tours to help drag debris from the river floor.

Skipper Darren Timms said the floods had proved to be somewhat of a selling point for tourists.

Along with stories of the flood along the tour, the company has produced a brochure showing photos that illustrate the week of devastation. However, the disaster tourism angle may be running thin.

"It's getting harder and harder to point out flood damage. They keep cleaning it up. A bit inconsiderate really," the guide joked to passengers as the boat passed a warped platform being repaired on the river bank.

Among the sights from the Neptune was the old naval store, which now houses RiverLife Adventures and has markers showing the river's level during the 1893, 1974 and 2011 floods.

Sitting right on the water's edge, it is no surprise RiverLife Adventures was one of the hardest hit businesses in January, suffering more than $A100,000 (NZ$129,354) in damages.

"The water came up to 1.5 metres and went throughout the entire building, leaving five tonnes of silt," RiverLife Adventures spokeswoman Deborah Morandin said.

"We were lucky to be supported by staff, family and the tourism industry. We had over 170 volunteers over four very long, days, and we were back in business five days later.

"We only lost four days of cliff activities and two night paddles. It was actually an amazing time immediately after the floods - we were the only water craft allowed on the water, so the kayakers were able to have a kayak without the City Cat's (Brisbane's ferries) floating past."

South Bank, a major tourist area bordering the river, also suffered heavy losses, including having its underground carpark submerged and free pool destroyed.

However, with the precinct set to host its annual Real Food Festival and open a raft of new restaurants, officials are hoping South Bank will bounce back to offer more than it did before the floods.

An hour and a half from the city, Tangalooma Resort on Moreton Island has also felt the effects, logging more than 100 cancellations and postponements since January.

"The floods had no impact on the resort whatsoever, so it was the perception that we had been affected that had the most effect on us," director David James said.

"Bookings had been down since December owing to the heavy rain we received, and over the two-month period we were down approximately 30-35 percent on last year. As this is normally our high season, it is a considerable amount of business that was lost."

The Story Bridge Adventure Climb was another business that suffered little from the actual floods, but is now struggling with the tourism downturn.

The bridge reaches more than 80 metres above the river, so climbers were well out of harm's way from the rising waters, and had a bird's-eye view of the devastation on the day of the floods.

"It was like there's this building, there's that building. There's a wheelie bin floating down the river down, there's a walkway, there's a piece of the ferry terminal floating away..." the climbing guide, Simon, told my group.

The climb was forced to shut down immediately following the floods because transport problems made getting to the attraction's headquarters difficult, but was back in action within a week.

Running against the trend is the Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, which have both come through the floods unscathed.

The entire cultural precinct, made up of the gallery, museum, library and performing arts centre, closed for five weeks after the floods, but since reopening the art gallery has had its highest-ever visitor numbers.

"It really, in the end, didn't affect us or our audiences," deputy director Suhanya Raffel said.

"We have had 1.8 million people over the last financial year - that is a record for an art museum in Australia."

Ms Raffel said she was not surprised visitors had come back quickly.

"The cultural precinct really is a place for people to gather, it's a way for the community to come together, and especially after something as traumatic as that," she said.

"I do think that after a disaster like that a sense of place becomes really important as part of the recovery effort, and a way to say, 'Look we're back on our feet'."


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