By Mitchell Clarke
The Coronavirus outbreak has forced the Puffing Billy railway to cancel all services to Gembrook for the remainder of February, due to a decrease in visitor numbers.
The Federal Government’s decision to implement travel restrictions for Chinese travellers has seen an “immediate impact” on patronage.
“As a result, we have had to reduce our services in response to the lower visitor numbers but are working closely with Tourism Australia and Visit Victoria to maximise all marketing opportunities that encourage visitors along,” a Puffing Billy spokesperson said.
The township of Gembrook is expected to be impacted by the cancellations, but according to Eastern Dandenong Ranges Association (EDRA) chair Garry McGough, it won’t have a “devastating impact”.
“Yes, Puffing Billy is one of our significant contributors in bringing people into the town, but Gembrook itself has a strong tourism visitor rate from people coming here themselves,” Mr McGough said.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the people on Puffing Billy don’t actually spend a lot of money here because they often get picked up in a bus that meets them at the end of the railway.”
Mr McGough believes that in this current climate of low international visitor numbers, it’s the perfect time for Puffing Billy to increase their domestic and interstate market.
“Unfortunate situations like Coronavirus really show how reliant we are on overseas visitors,” he said.
“The reason for Puffing Billy to postpone travel to Gembrook suggests overseas visitors are at an all-time low and it’s not viable for them to run the trains.
“I would like to see Puffing Billy build up local tourism and work more closely with EDRA, Yarra Ranges Tourism, Casey Cardinia Tourism and our hills townships to develop a range of short and longer term campaigns.
“There are four million people that live in Melbourne, you’ve got this massive city and if you got just 0.01 percent of that per week, you’d have a lot more people travelling.”
Away from Puffing Billy, Mr McGough believes tourism officials should promote Gembrook by targeting the Pakenham, Officer and Berwick markets.
But there is some welcome relief in sight for the township, with Puffing Billy set to celebrate its annual ‘Day Out with Thomas’ event, which attracts over 4000 visitors a weekend.