The Victorian government has been accused of jeopardising the state’s coronavirus recovery through inconsistent approaches to lucrative major events after it lost the world’s longest-running surfing competition to New South Wales.
The World Surfing League revealed on Sunday that delays over a decision on whether it would be allowed to fly athletes into Victoria had forced organisers to bypass Bells Beach, the competition’s home for the past 60 years.
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Businesses on the tourism-dependent Surf Coast, having already taken a financial hit during lockdowns, now face a loss of millions of dollars in revenue.
“People are worried,” Andrew Ferrie, owner of tourism and marketing company Destination Surf Coast, told The New Daily.
“I think it’s pretty difficult with everything going on with the virus to know where events stand.”
Mr Ferrie claimed the Surf Coast community was not consulted. He said business owners and leaders had been left scratching their heads and concerned about the Pro’s future, adding that there was no guarantee it would ever return to Bells Beach.
Surfer Jackson Trotman, a regular at Bells, said he was disappointed the event had been moved to NSW.
“But with everything that’s going on with the tennis, I can understand how there would be heavy backlash with quarantines and what not,” he told TND.
“You can see how letting international surfers and support staff back into Victoria after the Australian Open debacle is problematic.”
News of the decision, which came as Victoria chalked up three more days coronavirus-free, also fuelled confusion over how rules would be applied to other forthcoming events.
Critics pointed out the Australian Open was going ahead in Melbourne while outdoor events like the Grand Prix and surfing would not.
“Why is it OK to the run the Aus Open tennis?” one person commented online.
“So the tennis can cause all sorts of problems, yet they cancel this? Ridiculous,” wrote another.
Victorian Liberal senator Sarah Henderson, who is based in the Geelong region, slammed the state government for not allowing entry to the 120 surfers and crew despite making special arrangements for hundreds of tennis teams.
Opposition leader Michael O’Brien said “Labor dithering” over COVID rules would threaten jobs and Victoria’s reputation as the major events capital of Australia.
“This loss of this major tourism and sporting event is an international embarrassment and will cause around $10 million of economic damage to our region,” Ms Henderson wrote on Facebook.
She claimed there was “no health rationale… just incompetence and negligence”, contrasting the decision to the special arrangements made for tennis stars.
The Rip Curl Pro is traditionally held at Bells Beach, 30 kilometres outside of Geelong, on the Easter long weekend. The competition was cancelled due to COVID in 2020.
Now, for the first time since 1961, the Easter surf event will be held elsewhere. Surfers would instead head to Newcastle’s Merewether Beach, it was announced on Saturday.
WSL general manager Andrew Stark claimed scheduling issues and a lack of “surety” over possible quarantine arrangements in Victoria forced the hand of organisers.
“We needed a decision, in terms of being able to land the charter [in Victoria]… it was early January, we still weren’t clear on whether the charter could land or not. Victoria were facing the issues regarding the tennis at the time. We needed a solution,” he told Nine’s Today.
“At the time, they couldn’t provide us the surety to land the charter. We respect and understand that, but we had to really quickly pivot to a situation where we could bring the athletes in, and this was the only way we could.”
For the first time in 60 years, Bells beach has lost its historic Easter weekend time slot at the Rip Curl Pro surfing tournament.
— The Today Show (@TheTodayShow) February 6, 2021
The WSL has chartered a plane from Los Angeles to bring surfers to Australia. They will undergo mandatory 14 day hotel quarantine in Sydney, then begin the Newcastle event on April 1.
A NSW government spokesperson told The New Daily the surf teams be sent to the same hotel quarantine sites as other returning Australians, not given special quarantine arrangements like visiting movie stars.
A Victorian government spokesperson said state authorities were still in negotiations with the surf governing body, and remained hopeful of having some form of surfing event at Bells this year.
However, TND understands that hopes of rescheduling the Bells event to later in the year remains only around 50-50.
Victorian health minister Martin Foley said on Sunday that the government was working to ensure “in 2022, the Rip Curl Pro returns to its traditional home”.
He declined to comment on the quarantine arrangements NSW offered to surfers.
Victoria would keep holding events as long as organisers had “COVID-safe event plans” and “appropriate quarantine arrangements”, Mr Foley said.
“We are operating on the basis that all organisations that want to operate their events in Victoria are welcome,” he said.
Public health team advice was that outdoor events in “highly-regulated” environments could go ahead, Mr Foley said, adding that the Australian Open had “rigorous” systems in place.
The WSL said it had a “robust and thorough” COVID plan.