By Graeme Kemlo

Phillip Island invested $58.3 million developing its foreshore Penguin Parade facilities to host 3000 people a night to watch hundreds of little penguins waddle up the beach into their sandhill burrows. But COVID-19 closed it.

Kim Storey of Destination Phillip Island says penguins are the major attraction for the island’s 2.6 million visitors and even though restrictions were eased this week, only 150 people a night can attend. More than 770,000 viewers tuned into a livestream of the penguins one-night last month.

Ms Storey, who is a Board member of Business Events Victoria, said the island had grown its visitor economy by 9.6 per cent year-on-year over the past five years.

“Our increase in visitor expenditure over that period was 10 per cent – about $528 million… our plan was to grow the yield, rather than just grow visitor numbers,” she said.

However, they started to notice a decline in late January. This was the effect of COVID-19 on international Chinese New Year visitors and also the impact of the bushfires over summer with their significant warnings against travel. Only 140 km southeast of Melbourne, the island is still closed to Melbourne visitors.

“Phillip Island is one of the hotspots for Chinese New Year visitation for international groups, families travelling together and self-drive because of the penguin parade,” she said.

But Philip Island had also worked hard to promote itself as a new destination for explorer class cruise ships, building an anchorage off Coweswith tenders brining international visitors to shore.

“This year was going to be our biggest ever – we had a calendar of 25 ships booked in for the 2020/21 season, but that is now obviously cancelled.”

Conferencing and business events were also impacted as the hospitality industry basically shut down. Silverwater and Ramada resorts accommodate two and three day meetings while the Grand Prix track stages trade launches, drive days, training and other business events.

New nature and water-based attractions including a jet boat and ocean cruise to the seals had been developed.  But the island was looking for a major brand 4.5-star 100-150 room hotel for both conferencing and coach tours that could provide in-house dining. A vacant prime site – formerly the Isle of Wight hotel – overlooking the water at Cowes is earmarked for such a development.