By Jed Lanyon and Romy Stephens
Visitors to the Yarra Ranges are being warned to remain vigilant as the region prepares for an influx of tourists following the further easing of Covid-19 restrictions.
With local hospitality and retail businesses open, the lifting of the 25km travel limit and the removal of the ‘ring of steel’ border between metropolitan and regional areas, the Yarra Ranges is set to be inundated with tourists from this week.
Yarra Ranges Council CEO Tammi Rose said large crowds were anticipated on upcoming weekends and holidays.
She urged people to plan ahead to reduce overcrowding and avoid disappointment.
“We know that businesses across Victoria have been struggling this year and we’ve felt this very close to home. As one of the state’s most visited tourist regions, visitors are the lifeblood of so many of our local businesses,” Ms Rose said.
“We love to see people coming out and enjoying themselves in Yarra Ranges, but as we face a Covid-normal summer, we have to change the way we take day trips and holidays.
“Please be kind to local businesses – we’re all keen for visitors, but we’re also all adapting to the changes and challenges of this year.
“The easiest thing to do is to book ahead – this will guarantee you a seat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and help our businesses to run smoothly.”
Ms Rose said there would be reduced parking as outdoor dining takes over some traditional car parks in main streets.
“We still have accessible parking available, but we’re encouraging visitors and community members to be patient and leave extra time to find a park,” she said.
“For visitors heading out to some of our parks, reserves and forests, please plan your day with back-up destinations in mind, as you may arrive to find carparks full or an area quite busy. Some of these destinations do have alternative car parks so best to research these in advance of your visit.
“Places like the Redwood Forest in East Warburton, the 1000 Steps and the RJ Hamer Arboretum are extremely popular, but we have so many more wonderful places to visit, including hundreds of kilometres of paths and trails, so it’s worth taking the time to explore off the beaten track.”
Olinda’s Cloudehill Gardens is one of the numerous locations in the Dandenong Ranges preparing for more visitors.
Cloudehill Gardens owner Jeremy Francis said staff had been “flat out” preparing the garden and restocking the nursery.
“We’ve gone from seven months of absolutely nothing to what we expect is going to be a lot of activity from now on,” he said.
Mr Francis said there would be no entry restrictions on the gardens because they are outdoors across about 10 acres. However, there will be restrictions for the Diggers Shop and Seasons Restaurant, and visitors will need to wear masks.
“The hills are just glorious at the moment. It’s a shame that we couldn’t share it for so long,” Mr Francis said.
“We don’t want a hoard of people, but as we become confident we’re on top of it then I feel this is kind of a reset for the hills and for horticulture.
“We just have to ooze our way into it and make sure our procedures keep on top of things.”
Rayner’s Orchard owner Len Rayner said he was looking forward to welcoming tourists for pickings again.
The orchard’s tractor fruit tasting adventures recommenced on 9 November.
“We put a post on Facebook recently and it got some fairly serious numbers. We’re pretty confident it’ll all come good.”
Mr Rayner said the orchard is the only farm in Australia that runs ‘U-Pick’ fruit sessions every day of the year. Despite remaining open to sell fruits and veggies, the tourist visits were halted due to Covid-19.
“All through the winter we’ve had to pick all the fruit ourselves and it’s been a pain in the neck.”
As the orchard’s tractor tours and fruit picking activities are outdoors, it makes it easy for Rayner’s Orchard to comply with CovidSafe regulations, but Mr Rayner feels for those businesses that don’t have an outdoor option.
“We’re outdoors so it’s not that bad, it will still be a little difficult and it means we’ll have to limit the numbers on things, but being outdoors, it’ll be a lot easier than having a cafe, where the cleaning regime is scary as heck.”
Mr Rayner shared how the orchard made changes to try and remain solvent through the pandemic.
“Part of changing our business model is we’re now growing advanced strawberry plants. It’s set up in such a way that you buy a plant and they’ve already got fruit on them.
“The fruit is already on the tree and you can water it and pick it as it ripens. All you have to do is take the pot home and pick the fruit.”
Despite many tourist attractions opening up across the Yarra Ranges, there is still no certainty towards the reopening of Parks Victoria sites.
Locations such as the 1000 Steps, Redwood Forest in Warburton and William Ricketts Sanctuary remain closed.
Parks Victoria District Manager Victoria Purdue said the 1000 Steps and Redwoods Forest will “re-open to the public when they can accommodate physical distancing requirements.”
“Both the 1000 steps and Redwoods Forest are popular parks with limited facilities on site. They were closed in the interest of public safety as they were unable to accommodate physical distancing requirements,” she said.
“The local Parks Victoria team has been working hard to prepare the Kokoda Memorial Track (1000 steps) for re-opening, including constructing new passer bays and implementing a permanent one-way loop on the narrow 1000 steps staircase.”
Ms Purdue urged people to remain safe when visiting parks in the near future.
“In recent months we’ve seen an increase in visitor numbers in parks right across metropolitan Melbourne,” she said.
“Parks Victoria understands people want to get out and enjoy the Victoria’s parks. We encourage visitors to plan ahead, avoid peaks times, especially on weekends, and choose parks where there are fewer visitors.
“Visitors to parks and reserves are reminded of physical distancing, hygiene and face-mask requirements, and to please stay home if unwell.”