New Year’s Eve felt like “Amargeddon” for Elwin Bell.
Planes and helicopters roared overhead. Gas canisters exploded. Walls of flames tore through buildings and cars.
The 50-year-old owner of Bells Super Family Carnival told The New Daily he had never seen anything like it.
“It was like the end of the world. You couldn’t see one foot in front of you, because of the smoke, and no one was prepared for it,” Mr Bell said.
“We should have had face masks and everything kitted out ready for these fires because we couldn’t breathe.”
Mr Bell was in Bateman’s Bay, a popular beachside retreat on the south coast of New South Wales, when the bushfires struck.
What should have been the busiest day of the year for his family’s carnival soon descended into chaos.
As fires tore across the mountains, the sky turned blood red and people abandoned their homes and cars for the safety of the beach.
“We’ve been bringing entertainment to Bateman’s Bay for the last 50 years, my family. And this has been the worst year (for business) that we’ve ever seen,” Mr Bell said.
“It’s had a devastating effect on everyone here.”
Mr Bell said the fires had cut his carnival’s foot traffic by 80 per cent.
The main road connecting the beachside town to Canberra was shut for weeks, while horrific images of burnt kangaroos and koalas convinced international tourists to stay at home.
Despite taking a major revenue hit, Mr Bell said his business would survive.
“We’ll just eat a few more baked beans this week, and next week, and the week after, until we get back on our feet,” he said.
But others mightn’t be so lucky.
A survey by the Australian Tourism Export Council (ATEC) found the bushfires have so far cost the tourism industry $4.5 billion in lost revenue.
And Westpac estimates the fires could cut Australia’s overall economic output by up to $10 billion (roughly 0.5 per cent of GDP), with the negative impact on consumer sentiment and tourism lasting for months.
Small businesses in Bateman’s Bay have responded to the crisis with a simple message: “Canberra, come back.”
In a video filmed and edited by local teenager Joel Ware, business owners have urged Canberrans to return to the tourist hotspot with a modified version of hit 70s song Baby Come Back.
Fun song. Serious message. Without tourists returning in their droves, some businesses probably won’t make it.
“We are strong but we can’t live without you,” sings Jacob Crooke, from JJ’s fish and chip shop.
Tourists were told to evacuate the south coast in the first days of 2020, and Batemans Bay Business and Tourism Chamber President Alison Miers told the ABC many were reticent to come back as the media had made it sound as though the whole town had burnt down.
“But all of the major towns are not burnt. The national parks in the large majority for the area have, but not those towns,” Ms Miers said.
According to ATEC’s survey, which was first shared with the Australian Financial Review, the main reasons for cancellations were fear and concern related to air quality, safety and access; a lack of clarity around the timeline for recovery; and news reports suggesting the destruction was worse than reality.
Tourism Australia cancelled its $15 million “matesong” marketing campaign in the wake of the fires.
ATEC managing director Peter Shelley thought that was a wise decision, but he told the AFR Australia urgently needed a new campaign “to push the message that Australia is welcoming tourists.”
Describing Bateman’s Bay as a “ghost town”, Mr Bell made a similar plea.
The New Daily asked Tourism Australia whether it planned to launch a new campaign but the government-led agency didn’t respond before deadline.
Tourists can find out where bushfires are still burning on the NSW Rural Fire Service website.