Tasmania’s iconic wilderness walk the Overland Track is expecting up to a third fewer visitors this season because of coronavirus restrictions.
- The Overland Track season starting in October will initially be capped at 24 walkers setting off per day
- The fee in peak season has been halved in part to attract visitors, but also because some facilities will not be available
- The reduced numbers could mean a revenue hit of up to 50 per cent
The state’s oldest commercial walk started in 1931, growing to about 1,500 hundred walkers in the 1970s and now attracts more than 9,000 to what is billed as “Australia’s premier alpine walk”.
From tomorrow, walkers will be able to book ahead for October onwards, but numbers will be capped at 24 walkers, down from 34.
The 65 kilometre walk reopened earlier this month with numbers limited to 16 and huts available only for emergencies.
The paid booking season runs from October 1 to May 31 and there will be limits on huts to ensure social distancing can be observed.
The fee for October to December has been halved to $100 in recognition of the restrictions, but also in an attempt to lure walkers.
“By the time we get to the booking season (October 1 till May 31) we fully expect that the huts will be available for limited use, ” said Parks and Wildlife Service regional manager Nic Deka.
“It’s a moving feast but we are working towards getting at least partial use of the huts in place because obviously during winter, that’s when they are most needed, particularly from a safety perspective.”
Parks will be relying on walkers to self-manage.
“There will be maximum numbers posted on each hut that will enable us to achieve social distancing but the expectation is that there still will be a large number of walkers that camp because staying in tents is of course a very effective way of social distancing,” he said.
“We need to ensure the numbers on the huts doesn’t exceed the available capacity in sleeping and common areas. So effectively the capacity of each of the huts needs to be half what it currently is.”
“We need to ensure that there are cleaning products in each of the huts that enable walkers themselves to clean all surfaces, and basically do a bit of self management.”
Rangers will aim to clean the huts each week, weather permitting, something that is usually done once a month.
Tasmanian National Parks Association president Nicholas Sawyer said limiting walkers to 24 independent walkers should work for social distancing.
“I would think there wouldn’t be any problems with social distancing on the tent platforms because they are pretty well spread out anyway,” he said.
He welcomed the reduced fee, describing it as a “fairly substantial discount … it seems pretty reasonable give that most of facilities that you get for your track fee are in the huts and they are not going to be accessible,” he said.
Commercial operators and school groups will camp on tent platforms and Mr Deka said they would also be subject to social distancing.
The numbers walking via commercial operators who rely on interstate and overseas tourists is expected to be much reduced.
Revenue cut in half
He said the exact drop in numbers would be hard to predict, but with fewer walkers, there will be less revenue.
“We don’t have a crystal ball, it’s very difficult to predict but a best guess is walker numbers will be 30 per cent down,” he said.
“We have taken a bit of a worst-case scenario and so we are expecting a 50 per cent reduction in revenue.
“It may be not that great, and that would be fantastic because all revenue generated by the Overland Track is returned to the operations management and upkeep of the Overland Track experience.
“So certainly we are hoping for better, but we are planning for 50 per cent.”
Less income will mean no summer track work for 12 months, but basic maintenance such as drainage will be done.
Fewer people means less impact on the park, Mr Deka said, adding that meant “our operations costs will also be reduced because if you have a third less people then you have a third less human waste that you have to fly out of the park for example”.
“So there will be some benefits to the park I expect from the reduced numbers.”
Despite uncertainty about borders reopening, there has already been a lot of interest on the walk’s website, he said.
“When people are in lockdown it’s probably common sense they are going to be cruising the internet looking at opportunities and experiences and places they would rather be.”
Exploring own backyard
Mr Deka expects wilderness experiences in general will become more popular in post-pandemic Tasmania.
Cradle Mountain businesses have reported “really strong” bookings for this time of year, he said.
“I think evidence of that is the popularity of our parks and reserves immediately following the easing of the restrictions.”
“There are folk that may have gone interstate and overseas at his time of the year and that’s not possible so they are taking the opportunity to explore home.”
Mr Sawyer said when the weather warms up later in the year, demand to walk on the Overland Track would depend on how the COVID-19 crisis was progressing in Tasmania, interstate and overseas.
“Right at the moment we are in the midst of winter, which doesn’t encourage people to get out and about too much,” he said.
“There’s a lot of optimism at the moment, but the situation in Victoria is probably making a few people think twice about that.
The Three Capes track, which has a greater number of annual visitors, is also capping numbers and applying social distancing rules.
Anyone who is planning a walk in Tasmania is advised to check the park’s website for the latest information .
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