Annette & Gavin

Flicking through the worn pages of the bookings register they inherited from the previous owner, Annette and Gavin Blake could see they were buying a thriving hostel business.

Through the decades, thousands of travellers had bunked down in the clean but simple bedrooms and shared tales of the road around the communal kitchen, dining and lounge rooms.

Two years on, the modern whiteboard on the wall tells a starkly different story.

It is wiped clean.

“December 23 was the first day since October 2017 that we have had no bookings not by choice,’’ Gavin said. “Today [February 3] we’ve had nobody through.’’

Figures between November and January show that the cheery yellow weatherboard hostel, aptly named 14 Lovel St, is down 52 per cent in income. On paper, the occupancy numbers are slightly better but the reality is the Blakes have lured guests with discounts.

Forward bookings from February are down 35 per cent this year.

This time of year, 14 Lovel St is usually 80 per cent full, sometimes 100 per cent.

Like many in the Blue Mountains, the Blakes hoped the Australia Day long weekend would reverse the downward spiral and visitors would return to Australia’s first tourist destination.

Visitor numbers did swell slightly but only temporarily.

“I felt like it was kind of coming back this past weekend [sic],’’ Annette said.” Thursday was pretty good – we probably had sixty per cent, but then Saturday was kind of nothing.’’

The Blakes now hope a calendar of festivals and events throughout the region will help lure tourists into the future. The annual Ukulele Festival and Roaring 20s Festival events will be held on the February 8-9 weekend, with a music festival in March and a bush marathon in May.

Located in Katoomba near popular tourist attractions such as Scenic World, Leura Mall and the Three Sisters rock formation, 14 Lovel St is several kilometres from the bushland and nowhere near areas affected by bushfire.

Yet, like every tourism business in the region, the century-old hostel has experienced a sharp downturn in visitors even though it has not been directly impacted by bushfire.

In fact, neither has Katoomba or neighbouring Leura which form the traditional tourist hub of the region.

Nevertheless, tourism businesses have suffered an average 60 per cent downturn, with some reporting up to 90 per cent and several even a total bookings wipeout.

Until November 2019 when the first flame flickered into a bushfire, the Blue Mountains was an international must-see destination.

Destination NSW statistics show that 4.7 million tourists visited the Blue Mountains and spent $833 million in the year ending September 2019.

Then they didn’t.

Tourists assumed that the heavy smoke which choked Sydney also blanketed the Blue Mountains.

The reality was relatively clear skies and smoke-free air. The highway remained open and safe with most businesses trading as normal (Scenic World was closed for several days as a precaution and Blue Mountains Explorer Bus operated to an amended route).

Yet signs placed at Sydney Airport and CBD train stations warned against visiting the Blue Mountains.

Sensational media and community reporting led to the inaccurate perception that “the Blue Mountains is on fire’’.

While 80 per cent of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area has been burnt, “what’s important for the tourists is that they don’t see eighty per cent bushfire damage’’, Annette said.

“They don’t realise that it’s not all black dirt and black stumps and the occasional bit of hope. We are untouched in this bubble.”

“If you came up now to Katoomba and Leura and Wentworth Falls, you wouldn’t see it.’’

However, by Christmas the streets had become deserted. Retailers, hoteliers and restauranteurs paced empty hallways and casual staff saw their shifts dry up.

Although the Blakes have used the down time to complete maintenance and renovations on the hostel, they now need help with marketing, social media and their online presence (details listed below).

“I’ve heard reports from locals who have been through the 2013 fires that twelve to eighteen months is not out of the question before things pick up,’’ Annette said. “That’s a disaster.’’

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